Scottish celebrity chef Finn McDuff is media stalked and disillusioned after winning his third star and losing his third wife. He decides he’s had enough of all the food campaigns, the TV cookery shows, the constant frenzy surrounding his private life and, after giving up all his accolades and closing down his restaurant, he disappears.
With the enfant terrible of the kitchen missing, two rival newspapers, having lost their media meal ticket, compete against each other to whip up further public curiosity in the missing chef. Love him or hate him, everyone is out looking for Chef McDuff. Who will find him first and whose side will you be on...?
“Janice’s style that I loved so much in the first novel continues in this book. A wonderful plot and some extremely engaging characters all bundled together in a steamy Scottish kitchen!” Lou Graham - Book Blogger
“This is a fantastic story with a great setting and characters. It was also really fun to feel like I was behind the scenes with a famous chef. I would highly recommend Reaching for the Stars – 5 stars from me!”
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“Janice Horton really is a star when it comes to compelling reading. Reach for Janice Horton, Reaching for the Stars!”
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“I really enjoyed this story and Janice had a wonderful ability to keep her readers glued to the story. I will definitely be going back and reading her previous book.” Turning the Pages Book Reviews
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Janice Horton doing research for her novel Reaching for the Stars in the kitchens of Dumfries and Galloway
Reaching for the Stars is available from Amazon for Kindle and also in paperback format
Excerpt - Chapter One
Wearing the same champagne-soaked Armani suit he had been in for the past fourteen hours, Finlay McDuff was slumped in an armchair inside the Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh, on a bright January morning. He was reading about himself in the newspapers and reflecting on why, after finally achieving his life’s ambition, he should be feeling so utterly miserable.
‘Bad-boy chef wins three Golden Stars,’ declared The City News.
‘Infamous chef wins third star in Edinburgh,’ reported The Scotsman.
‘McGolden!’ boasted The Thistle.
Finn lit a cigarette and groaned. His blood-red eyes, set in dark hollows beneath heavy lids, looked as though they hadn’t ever closed during the years he had been chasing those coveted rosettes. The macaroons, as the French liked to call them, the ultimate symbols of gastronomic success. Only what use were they now?
He had put ambition over love; pride over marriage; his ego over his emotions.
Three sins for three stars, he told himself.
He longed to sleep. Not that he could sleep. Not since Gina had left. Not since she had got on that plane back to Italy and disappeared from his life. It had been three weeks and three days and he’d heard nothing from her. No phone calls, no letters, no emails, no requests for money, and no demands from her lawyer. It wasn’t like her. Gina made a point of demanding, and now she’d stopped it was driving him crazier than her constant whining ever had.
A nervous young waiter approached him from across the foyer.
‘Sir, you cannot smoke in here, it’s the law.’
Finn searched for an ashtray while his deposits threatened the Balmoral’s marble floor.
‘I’m a-afraid we don’t have any ashtrays,’ stuttered the waiter.
Finn took off a shoe and used it instead; further jeopardising the hotel’s clean air policy.
‘A d-drink, sir?’
Finn yawned and tried to check his watch, but his eyes were unfocussed and rolling in his head from the as yet unprocessed alcohol still making its way round his body.
‘Nah, I’ll have a cup of tea and two paracetamol. I’ve to do an interview with some journo tosser and I need some pain relief quickly.’
He cast his mind back to the last time he had seen his wife. It had been ten o’clock on Christmas Eve, when she had stormed into his restaurant and had screamed at him over the passe in a mix of Italian, Scottish and English, while tears poured down her face.
He remembered the restaurant being excruciatingly quiet as she had served her ultimatum.
He had been tearing herbs onto a plate of foie gras and had looked up to see if she was serious. In full view of his diners, she had strutted back and forth with her nose and chin raised provocatively, her dark eyes fixed firmly upon him, her perfectly manicured fingernails strumming her thrusting hips, while one Italian leather shoe tapped the terrazzo-tiled floor.
Everyone in the restaurant had waited open-mouthed for his response.
But he did what he was trained to do under pressure: he cooked.
Gina, having interpreted his reticence as indifference, had pulled at her finger and thrown something down onto the passe in front of him. It was her wedding ring.
To his disbelief, it had landed straight in the foie gras.
Raine Sanderson desperately wanted to be taken seriously as a journalist, and had been incredibly excited to be offered an internship at one of Edinburgh’s most respected broadsheet newspapers, The Thistle. Her only disappointment was that it hadn’t been an exclusive offer, and there were several other wannabe Thistle reporters participating in what the Chief Editor, Veronica, had described with great gusto as an ‘X-Factor style’ proving ground.
To Raine’s relief, it had just taken a few testing assignments for the weakest of the wannabees to start falling by the wayside, leaving just two determined hopefuls pitched against each other for the coveted job.
One was a very up-himself graduate from Stirling University called Ross Campbell. A tall, dark haired rake of a man, who laughed at his own jokes and shamelessly name dropped about having worked freelance for The Scotsman and The Herald when no one else would have dared mention a competitor newspaper by name for fear of editorial reprimand.
The second person was Raine herself; a graduate of Edinburgh Napier, who had the misfortune through her pretty blonde looks and clear blue eyes, to appear far younger and much more stupid than she actually was. For this reason, in response to Ross’s boasting and infernal jokes, she preferred to keep quiet about the fashion magazines she had worked on as well as her steely determination to beat preppy-boy Campbell to the esteemed post.
Ross Campbell had no such qualms. At over six feet tall, he looked down on most people and annoyed Raine constantly with the same old ‘rain’ jokes she had heard a thousand times, while reminding her of how he was going to be the one to secure the job.
Finally, after six gruelling weeks of watching endless media tick-tack and hanging around stuffy court rooms waiting for whiffs of scandal, Raine and Ross were pitched against each other in one ultimate test – a celebrity interview.
‘For one of you, tomorrow is your last day here at The Thistle,’ Veronica declared, looking at each of them in turn for dramatic effect, ‘but for the other, it will be the first day of a fantastic career.’
Outside the glass-walled office, the news room had become a hive of bookmakers.
Veronica continued. ‘The first of you to secure a celebrity interview and write it up as a lead story gets the front page – and the job!’
‘I know plenty of celebs,’ Ross interrupted slavishly. ‘Just how famous are we talking?’
Veronica raised her already high eyebrows at him and continued with a gravity that suggested this might not be the easiest of tests. ‘Your celebrity subject is Finlay McDuff.’
Ross frowned as if he were racking his brain cells and coming up blank.
‘He’s a chef,’ Raine said brightly, ‘although, I’d say he’s far more infamous than famous.’
Veronica nodded. ‘Yes, he’s recently been in the news for serving up fluffy bunnies and cute squirrels but, far more importantly, he has just won his third star and at the same time managed to lose his third wife!’
She was still laughing at the irony of this as she slapped a photograph down in front of them. ‘It’s infertility rather than infidelity that breaks up marriages in this country.’
Raine looked at the picture. It was a paparazzi photograph of the McDuffs, hand in hand, coming out of a private Edinburgh fertility clinic. ‘But he’s just won a third Golden Star!’
‘And his third wife has just left him!’ Veronica stabbed at the photo with a sharp, polished fingernail. ‘Twenty percent of couples in Scotland find it difficult to conceive, which inevitably leads to one of them looking for a younger and more potent mate.’
Raine crinkled up her nose at what she thought to be a horribly animalistic analogy.
‘So you think he’s firing blanks and that’s why she’s left him?’ Ross clarified, taking a closer look at the so-called enfant-terrible of the kitchen and his attractive Italian wife.
‘What’s that got to do with him being a chef?’ Raine retorted, crossing her arms in annoyance.
Veronica rolled her heavily made-up eyes. ‘Raine, you’re not writing for fashion glossies now, and if you want to make it in newspapers, you’ve got to toughen up.’
Ross suppressed his laughter. ‘You just can’t bear to rain on anyone’s parade, can you?’
‘I don’t like to offend people, if that’s what you mean?’ she quipped.
And certainly not Chef McDuff, she considered, in whose presence she knew she would feel both horribly scared and terribly excited. She wanted to write nice things about him and capture the excitement of him being the yummiest chef ever to win three Golden Stars; a far better story than one of misery and loss.
‘It’s a jungle out there,’ Veronica warned. ‘If we don’t get the exclusive then someone else will. The McDuff separation is of enormous interest to our readers.’
She handed them both a sheet of questions.
Raine glanced over them. The first one was so personal she balked at the thought of voicing it. The others were incidentals about his first and second marriages.
When she looked up, Veronica was eyeing her charily. ‘Look, if you really can’t do it, Raine, just say – and I’ll simply hand the job to Ross.’
Ross narrowed his eyes as if willing her to give in.
‘No,’ she answered, glaring defiantly. ‘I’ve just toughened up.’
Raine and Ross shot out of Veronica’s office, pouncing on their mobile phones to call McDuffs restaurant and his agent’s number, dialling in unison, only to discover each were stoically set to voicemail. Raine managed to leave a message first.
‘My name is Raine Sanderson. I’m with The Thistle and I’d like to interview Chef McDuff about winning his Golden Stars. I have a reputation for honesty and integrity and would appreciate a call back.’
At the far side of the news room, while she gained ground across town, Ross was pleading into the same answering machine.
She headed out across North Bridge towards McDuffs restaurant in the hope of tracking down the Great Man Himself. She was hailing a taxi when her mobile phone rang.
‘Hey Raine, this is Sam, McDuff’s agent. Okay, he’s at the Balmoral Hotel this morning and I’ve just told him to expect you. Although, I must warn you, he’ll be fragile...’
Raine couldn’t help but to wonder about the extent of this fragility but was so grateful for the call that she decided not to ask for specifics. Instead, she speed-dialled Veronica, while imagining what it would be like to have her very own desk in the news room, and what the expression on Ross’s face might be like when he realised she’d finally beaten him to it.
As the waiter hurried away, Finn saw a young girl standing in front of him. She was blonde and smiling and looked about twelve years old.
‘Hello,’ she said, holding out her hand in greeting. ‘I’m the journo tosser...’
He pulled himself up to his full height and wished he hadn’t. His hips and spine, twisted from spending the night where he had collapsed on his hotel room floor, felt damaged beyond repair. His skull felt like it had a drum beating inside it. He might be the youngest chef ever to achieve three stars but that didn’t mean he was still young.
They shook hands.
‘A good night then?’ the girl asked with wry amusement.
He growled something about his staff ‘forcing’ him to celebrate his so-called success and how, because of the drunken and debauched state they were all in this morning, they had all needed the day off to recover.
The waiter returned with a tray laden with tea paraphernalia and two white pills.
Finn fell upon them, popping them into his mouth and ordering a Bloody Mary. ‘Would you like one…erm, what did you say your name was again?’
‘I’m Raine Sanderson,’ said the girl, through the whitest teeth he had ever seen in his life, ‘and I’ll stick with the tea.’
They both sat back in the Balmoral’s comfortable chairs and Raine took a small voice recorder out of her suit jacket pocket and placed it on the table between them. Still smiling, she said to him, ‘Can you tell me, for our readers, what personal sacrifices it has taken for you to achieve the Holy Grail of culinary accolades – three Golden Stars?’
Finn leaned forward, lowering his voice while at the same time raising the tone of his Scottish accent, and said, ‘I’ll not discuss my private life with you.’
She tried a detour. ‘Okay. So tell me, what do you think about being voted the Sexiest Man Alive in our recent reader poll?’
His dark eyebrows lifted with a slightly bemused scepticism and he waved the air with a large hand, insisting there must be some kind of mistake.
Perched on the end of her seat, Raine pressed him again. ‘Chef, our readers want to know why in order to gain each Golden Star, you’ve always had to lose a wife?’
Just at that moment, the waiter came back with his remedy.
Finn reached out, gulping it down and demanding another, and tipping so generously that the replacement was with him within seconds.
‘Raine,’ he said, rubbing his baggy eyes, ‘can I speak to you off the record about this?’
Raine almost fell off her seat. ‘Absolutely,’ she squeaked, uncrossing her long slim legs and reaching forward to fiddle with the voice recorder.
He watched her pretend to switch it off. She smiled at him to continue.
‘For years I focussed on something that I thought was important, only to discover it wasn’t.’
She looked into his eyes with sympathy.
He inhaled a waft of her perfume that sent his head in a spin.
‘And only now do I see how wrong I was to reach for the stars, when the most precious thing in the whole universe was, in fact, standing right there right in front of me…’
‘And that precious thing...?’ Raine asked, glancing at the voice recorder.
‘My wife, of course!’
She let out a little sigh. ‘But, Chef, you are reputedly passionate – are you telling me you reserved all of that for the kitchen rather than the bedroom?’
He curled his lower lip and shrugged his shoulders.
Raine persisted. ‘Why don’t you start at the beginning and tell me exactly what happened?’
‘Well, I certainly hadn’t expected to attract the attention of the Golden Guide inspectors so quickly. I was young, and that first star seemed to fall into my lap so easily that I thought I must be something of a genius. I suppose I became seduced by my own success, and when my first wife walked out on me, who could blame her? I was working twenty-hour days, seven days a week, and surviving on very little sleep.’
‘But you found love second time around?’ she encouraged.
‘Yes, I met my second wife, and I made the same mistakes all over again so she left me, too.’
Raine reached over tentatively and patted his hand.
‘Then I met Gina,’ he continued, ‘and you think I’d have known better than to promise myself three Golden Stars before my thirtieth birthday.’
‘Well...,’ Raine said to him brightly, ‘at least you got your three wishes!’
A silence fell between them.
Finn’s voice, when he eventually spoke, was thick with emotion. ‘When I was just a wee boy, my mother would read me fairy stories about a godmother bestowing three wishes, and the boy in the story would always make a complete mess of the first two...’
Apparently transfixed by this childhood insight, she hung onto his every word.
‘Yes, and the third wish would put things back to exactly how they were!’ she enthused.
Finn swallowed hard and his Adam’s apple bobbed painfully in his throat.
‘And that’s what I should have done. I was given three chances to be happy and I let them all slip through my fingers.’ He reached out his big knarled hand and pointed out a recent scar. ‘See this? With Gina gone, I can’t concentrate anymore, and while boning a duck I cut right through a tendon. They say I almost lost the use of my hand forever!’
She winced at the angry redness of it and looked alarmed as he shook his famously long and tousled hair at her.
‘And the stress has made my hair fall out. Not to mention that the heat of the ovens has given me chronic eczema along the entire length of my body.’ He undid a button on his shirt to expose a glimpse of hairy chest. ‘And there is no way that’s sexy!’ he reiterated.
Raine gasped. Noting her embarrassment, he gave her a boyish grin.
A crowd had formed. Finn’s groupies, both male and female, having discovered their culinary hero was in the hotel, had gathered in the foyer. They waved the Saltire flag in support of him. Then, just as they seemed prepared to surge forward en-masse, the hotel security guard shunted them all back into the street. A pair of lace panties landed in his lap.
Raine, seemingly emboldened by his candidness, quickly asked him, ‘Is it true, Chef, that the heat of the ovens has caused you more problems than just eczema and that your third marriage was blighted by fertility problems?
He was suddenly incensed; his eyes blazing. ‘What did you just say…?’
‘That your wife wanted to have children and you couldn’t…’
He stood up, knocking the voice recorder onto the floor.
Raine fell in front of him, grabbing the recorder and protesting her dismissal.
‘But, Chef McDuff, Thistle readers want to know…’
Ignoring her and hissing like a disgruntled goose, he strode quickly through the foyer and straight into a waiting taxi.
‘To my restaurant, please,’ he instructed the driver, who drove off slowly, so as not to run over a person dressed as a grey squirrel running alongside the car. The squirrel banged on the window and waved a placard emblazoned with Finn’s scowling face.
‘It looks like you’re in trouble again, Chef,’ the driver chortled.
Finn sighed. ‘I should never have signed up to that damned campaign!’
He should have realised that by supporting the native red squirrel and introducing the grey’s meat to his restaurant menu (describing its taste as ‘just like chicken’), he would have caused a rift in the Scottish squirrel debate. Animal rights activists were now all over the city dressed as squirrels, smashing shop windows and throwing blood-red paint over the pavements. Then, just as the Golden Guide had made the official announcement of his three star status, the squirrel story had made national news, bringing his handsome face (and considerable culinary achievements) to the attention of millions, who then either hailed him as a gastronomic genius or a murdering monster.
As the taxi made its way towards Leith, he had time to reflect on the morning’s interview.
He had taken a liking to the girl journalist, but had perhaps divulged more information than he should have done which, if taken out of context, could do more harm than good. He was forever being quoted out of context. He wondered about her last question and where the information had come from; medical files were supposed to be confidential.
Still, he hoped his gamble would pay off. He knew Gina read the Scottish newspapers online, and if she wouldn’t answer his calls or reply to her voice mail, he had to use some other means to reach her. He had, of course, already tried to contact her through her parents, and they had obligingly told him she was away at an exhibition in Naples. He had jumped on a flight straight away, only to find the exhibition over and Gina long gone.
So, when her parents finally stopped taking his calls, and he had exhausted not only himself but conventional ways to track her down, the pretty young journalist had given him an alternative option. Now, he prayed that the media in general and the tabloids in particular would show him in a new light: a man who was sorry for putting his career first and his marriage second. A man who realised he had made a very big mistake indeed.