And sitting in the middle one? My brother.
That meant that Liam was against Tesla in this task. That also meant that I’d be against Brodie in the next one.
And if I didn’t outperform my brother? Liam was going to think I threw the challenge.
I groaned at the sight of my smiling blond brother. I was totally hosed.
"Nice to see you, too," he told me.
"You screwed me in this game, you know," I told him as I thumped to the seat next to him.
Did he really not know? I gave him an incredulous look. "The Ace."
"Oh." He shrugged. "You didn’t have to give it to me."
"You blackmailed me! You deliberately withheld information and then blackmailed me to get it after you’d promised you’d work with me. What was I supposed to do?"
Brodie grinned and leaned over to noogie my head. "Don’t be mad, Katy. I’ll buy you some cool stuff with my prize money when I win the two hundred and fifty thou. It’s the least I can do to say thank you."
"I don’t want you to promise me money," I sputtered. "My partner already thinks we’re in cahoots. He’s furious."
"Is he, now?" Brodie seemed really interested in that. "Good. So does this mean you’re going to throw the next challenge?"
"No! Are you kidding me?"
"Come on. He’s already mad. And I’ll make it worth your while after I win, I promise."
"Just shut up, Brodie. It’s not even up for discussion."
"Suit yourself." But he wouldn’t stop smiling, which infuriated me more.
I crossed my arms over my chest and slouched in my chair, irritated as hell at him. "I hope Liam blows Tesla away in this challenge and you have to eat our dust for a change."
"Won’t happen," Brodie said smugly.
Ten minutes later, the door opened. Both Brodie and I sat up, alert and waiting for our partners to return. I gave a whoop of delight when I saw it was Liam, and nearly launched myself into his arms. "So fast? You did awesome!"
He grinned at me and displayed the next task disk that he’d won. "Guess I have a better memory than I thought."
I took the disk from him, and noticed Brodie’s interest. I shoved it under my shirt so Brodie couldn’t sneak a peek at the writing on the backside. "Let’s get out of here," I told Liam.
He nodded, and his hand went to the small of my back, instinctively moving closer to me.
"Don’t forget what we agreed, Katy," Brodie called after me.
I gasped. That lying sack of shit. I turned and confronted him. "Nice try. I didn’t agree to anything with you."
"Uh huh," he said, and winked exaggeratedly.
"Bullshit," I told him, and turned back to Liam. "He’s full of it."
But Liam only gave me a speculative look. "Let’s just get in the cab. We don’t want to lose our lead."
Damn it. Why was I even trying? Liam wasn’t going to believe me, no matter what.
I stood outside of the small storefront and read the sign to make sure that I was at the right place, then read the clue-disk again. "Go to the Pretzel Factory. Inside, you will find trays of dough waiting for you. You must twist 200 pretzels Philly-style and then hand them to the baker. The baker will then hand you a large box of finished pretzels that you must deliver to a nearby office. There, you will receive your next task." I turned and looked at Liam. "Wish me luck."
"Luck," he said softly.
I didn’t know what to think of that response. He didn’t touch me, and his voice was flat. I stared at him a long moment, then shrugged and headed inside. I couldn’t read him, and it was bothering me. He’d shut down completely and it hurt me more than I cared to admit.
"Hi," I said as I walked in. There was a judge there, waiting on the mat. It was a woman with blonde hair, a chef hat, a green apron, and way too much lipstick. "I’m here for the challenge."
She gestured at one of the nearby tables and a cameraman scooted out of the way as I approached it. There were three massive tables laid out in the kitchen, all three covered with big bowls of dough and trays. I was the first one there, and I eyed the tableau, sizing it up.
The judge hurried to my side. "Let me show you how this works." She took one of the bowls and fed the dough into a strange looking machine. As I watched, it pushed out a long tube of dough, and she picked it up and began to weave it into the pretzel shape. She moved fast – so fast I was dazed watching her – and immediately picked up the next length of dough, then began to braid it, too. I watched her do three of them before she turned the machine off, gave me a thumbs up, and then returned to the mat.
All right, I guess that was all the demonstration that I was going to get. I flicked the machine back on again and waited for the first tube of dough, then snatched it when it came up. Immediately, it squished and lost its shape, and I yelped, trying to push it back into a semblance of shape. By the time I’d wrangled my dough into a mangled figure eight, looked nothing like hers, and the machine kept spitting out tubes of dough. I groaned and slapped my ugly pretzel down on a nearby tray. I’d save that pile for rejects.
It took me sixteen pretzels before I figured out what I was doing, and sixteen more before I started to get any sort of speed with it. My shoulders cramped because I was concentrating so hard that every muscle in my body was tense. But my pretzels weren’t looking like rejected limp doodles, so that was a win. I filled the first tray, exhausted, and counted.
Thirty two out of two hundred. Dear god, it felt like I’d been here forever.
To my annoyance, Brodie strolled in a moment later, breathless. Damn it! He’d caught up. I had lost whatever advantage Liam had gotten us. And unless I sped things up on this challenge, Liam was going to think I blew it on purpose. Frustrated, I wiped my brow, ignoring the flour I got on my face, and continued to work on my pretzels.
Brodie strolled past my table, eying my handiwork. He looked at my tray, grinned, and then moved to a table across from mine. The judge hurried over and started the pretzel-dough machine for Brodie, demonstrating three pretzels to him.
I paused for a moment, watching him as the machine began to spit out dough, and couldn’t help but grin when he confidently grabbed the first tube of dough…and it fell apart in his hands.
I smirked and returned to my pretzels, twisting the next one slowly into shape.
The room grew quiet, nothing but the sound of the machines whirring. I twisted a few more, noticing that I was getting better at this, if not faster. I sneaked a peek over at Brodie, since he was being so quiet. My brother stood over his tray, but his gaze was on my hands as I twisted my pretzel, and I could see that he was clearly trying to copy my much slower movements.
That jerk. He was going to profit off of my hard work? Again? Not likely. I tossed down my pretzel and grabbed a few of the big metal trays, propping them up so they formed a shield.
"Hey, not fair," Brodie told me, a whiny protest in his voice.
"Neither’s cheating off of me," I retorted. "You’ve screwed me enough in this game, thanks."
"Katy, I’m supposed to win, remember? That was our deal."
"No," I hissed. "You think I agreed to that, but I didn’t. We were supposed to be a team, remember? Except you threw me away for the hot rock chick and didn’t give a shit. And ever since then you’ve been trying to sabotage me."
"I have not!"
"No? Remember that whole Ace thing?" I twisted the next pretzel viciously and noticed that it actually looked closer to the demonstration pretzel. Huh. Maybe angry pretzeling was the way to do it. "Or maybe the whole ‘gee, Katy, don’t forget what we talked about’ thing?" I mocked his deeper voice.
"Oh, come on. I was just having fun."
"Yeah?" I slapped another pretzel down on the tray, noticing viciously that his pretzels looked like shit. "It’s not fun for me, Brodie. You don’t seem to care about my feelings at all."
He snorted. "I didn’t realize you were going to be such a baby about it."
"Liam’s pissed at me, Brodie!" I twisted hard, then laid the new pretzel next to its brothers before scooping the next long tube of dough off of the machine. I was almost keeping up with it now. "You think I’m going to be happy about that? I happen to really like the guy."
"He doesn’t need to win," Brodie countered. "He’s rich."
"So’s your partner. You’re still trying to win."
"You know I want to win!"
"Yeah, well, I want Liam," I yelled at him. "And you f**king ruined that for me, so thanks a lot."
"Language," one of the cameramen hissed at me. "We’re still filming."
I sighed and yanked another piece of dough in my direction, pleased to see that Brodie was still trying to watch me, but my table was shielded. Good. And he was still on his first tray. Double good.
"He’s a rock star, Katy," Brodie said, and I recognized the tone of voice. That was his whole ‘big brother knows all’ voice. The patient, almost too-knowing, too-smug tone of voice that I normally tuned out. Today? It got on my damn nerves. "You know just as well as I do that we won’t see him or Tesla again after this race."
"Well, you made sure that was the case, didn’t you?" I said bitterly. "Blackmailing me for the Ace was pretty low."
"I don’t get why you care so much," he said, and for a moment he sounded genuinely confused. "You said you just wanted the money. You’ll still get the same amount for second place as you would for last."
"Would you give up on the money?" I bellowed. "It’s not about that for me. Not anymore." I was getting a throbbing headache just trying to reason with Brodie. Why was I even trying? "You know what? Never mind, Brodie. Just never mind."
Summer rushed in a moment later, her eyes wide. She grinned happily at the sight of us. "I could hear you two yelling down the block. Led me right to this place."
"Only one of us is yelling," Brodie said in a sulky voice.
"Fuck off, Brodie," I said in my sweetest voice, and stuffed another pretzel in the tray.
“Language,” the cameraman said again, and we fell quiet.
Everyone twisted in silence for a while, the tension in the room utterly palpable. I couldn’t help but notice that once Summer got set up with her table, Brodie propped up a few trays and made his own fort so she couldn’t copy his hand motions. I peeked over at Brodie, and was discouraged to find that he’d started moving quite a bit faster than I’d hoped. If his pretzels looked halfway decent, he was going to make up a lot of time.
I finished the tray I was on and counted pretzels. Ten more. I got nervous at that, my hands shaking as I rapidly twisted and squished the pretzels into the proper shape. And then I was done. I leapt up, waving for the judge.
She strolled over to my table as if in slow motion and I twisted my doughy, flour-covered hands so I wouldn’t reach out and shove her toward my table. As I hovered, she counted, and then nodded. "That’s two hundred."
I hopped with excitement. "Now I do a delivery?"
She nodded and moved back to the mat. A large box of hot pretzels was waiting, painted black for my team color. It was about the size of a large ice-chest, and I hoisted it up, frowning. It was bulky and awkward to hold.