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THE RESTAURANT KITCHEN was hot, but sous-chef Melanie Marchand was hotter.
Thick seafood gumbo simmered on a back burner of the stove. The spicy scent of sweet paprika, cayenne pepper, garlic and onions permeated the air. Dozens of potatoes baked in a five hundred degree oven, while in the convection toaster, fat loaves of French bread turned a buttery golden brown. Chez Remy was in full swing as Mardi Gras season heated up.
Overhead, the ceiling fan was on the fritz, spinning lazily for a few minutes, then abruptly cutting out. Tendrils of dark hair escaped from Melanie's ponytail and perspiration plastered them against the nape of her neck. She pressed the back of one hand to her damp forehead in a useless attempt to stay her irritation.
She'd just glanced up at the daily menu posted on the dry-erase board by executive chef Robert LeSoeur, and noticed that the innovative dish she'd scribbled down the night before had been slashed through with a bright red Magic Marker.
Grrr. She gritted her teeth.
Without even a simple FYI, he'd axed her new specialty dish from the carte du jour, making her feel overlooked and insignificant. The way she'd often felt growing up as the youngest of four sisters. Charlotte was the smart one, Renee the pretty one, Sylvie the funny one. Melanie had just been the baby.
Her cooking skills were the only way she'd been able to distinguish herself. Purposefully, Melanie squared her shoulders, strode to the stainless steel commercial refrigerator and, with her biceps straining, dragged out the forty-pound turkey.
She was making the dish whether Robert liked it or not. He couldn't fire her. Her family owned Chez Remy, theelegant restaurant housed inside the Hotel Marchand, a four-star establishment tucked away on one of the original blocks of the French Quarter.
Ignoring the round-eyed stares of the other cooks, she hauled the turkey over to the prep area. After removing the giblets, she lubed it up with extra virgin olive oil.
The cooks kept glancing from Melanie to the crossed-out menu item posted near the stove, and back again. They recognized mutiny in the offing, but had the good sense not to comment on it. Although Jean-Paul Beaudreau, who had worked for her family since she was a small child, grinned and murmured something in his native Cajun dialect about the sexy appeal of a tempestuous woman.
She wasn't tempestuous. She just wanted her voice to be heard. Either LeSoeur simply enjoyed provoking her or the stubborn man needed to be fitted with a high-powered hearing aid. She picked up the oversize bird, now prepped for cooking, and marched it over to the rotisserie.
"It's too big." Robert's voice was a cool caress against her heated ears.
Melanie started, but did not look up at her nemesis because her insides had turned to mush.
Mentally, she steeled herself against the unwanted sensation of sexual attraction by not missing a beat. She kept right on trying to jam the bird into the oven as if Mr. Hot Body himself was not hovering behind her.
"Did you hear what I said?"
A bead of perspiration trickled down her throat. She wasn't about to concede that he was right. Melanie kept working it like Cinderella's ugly stepsister trying to stuff her big fat foot into that delicate glass slipper.
I will make this fit. I can't let him win.
Okay, she was competitive. So shoot her. "If you're determined to do this, then at least let me help so you don't end up hurting yourself," Robert said softly, and stepped dangerously close.
Who did he think he was fooling? He didn't want to help. He wanted to take over. He thrived on control. She could easily imagine him in the armed forces--a general barking out orders to his troops.
Melanie hardened her jaw. She would not allow this guy to steamroll her.
"Buzz off," she said flatly.
He came up behind her and slid his big arms around either side of her waist, grabbing hold of the slick bird she held positioned in front of her. Suddenly, she was having a lot of trouble breathing normally, and she could not blame it on the heat.
Robert was touching her, and the fact that he was touching her turned her on, and that scared the hell out of her.
His warm breath tickled the nape of her neck, his chest grazed her back and his arms rubbed against hers as they struggled together to insert the turkey into the rotisserie.
There was decidedly too much friction going on here. "Admit defeat gracefully, Marchand," he said after a few minutes of concentrated effort. "It's not going to fit."
"Stop being such a pessimist, and try wriggling it around a bit," she instructed.
Nothing happened. "I told you, it's too big," he gloated. "Braggart."
"What's that? I don't get an admission that you're wrong and I'm right?"
She could hear the humor in his voice. Was he flirting with her? Or making fun of her?
Underneath his white starched apron, with the maroon Chez Remy stitching across the front, he wore a tight, black cotton T-shirt, black denim jeans and black leather boots. Crocodile, she surmised. Or maybe alligator. Expensive either way. What a shame he could afford better shoes than she could. How much was her mother paying him, anyway?
Not that she was much of a shoe diva, as anyone might have deduced from the scuffed Nikes she wore when she wasn't in her kitchen clogs. She didn't even own a pair of stilettos. She preferred footwear that allowed freedom of movement. She liked to stay fluid, on the go, prepared in case an impromptu adventure broke out. Besides, at five foot nine, she was tall enough that she had no need for high heels.
Weird about Robert, though. In every way except for his footwear, he followed the status quo. Not a rocker of boats, LeSoeur. But those boots whispered, I do have a wild side even though you can't see it. That's what intrigued her most about him. This undercurrent, this hidden part of the iceberg.
She cast him a sidelong glance. Robert caught her looking at him and the right corner of his mouth quirked upward slightly. He was drop-dead gorgeous when he smiled. His posture was cocksure, reflecting the flawless arrogance of a man accustomed to being in charge.
Her knees wobbled.
Benedict Arnold knees.
His smile deepened, showing off a pair of devilish dimples.
Jeez, she was such a fool for dimples. Loved them, in fact. Melanie jerked her eyes downward and nipped her bottom lip between her teeth in an attempt to focus her attention on the poultry skewering, but the ploy didn't work.
Robert was right. Damn him.
The turkey was much too large for the rotisserie, but she wasn't about to admit she'd been wrong. She would slice off the bird's legs if she had to. One way or another, she was determined to make it fit, because silly as it might sound, she felt as if her entire sense of self hinged on it.
The Hotel Marchand had been faltering ever since Hurricane Katrina, but lately, just as they were getting back on their feet, a series of odd occurrences had been chipping away at their once impeccable reputation. Melanie believed that if she created unique and delicious dishes, people would flock to Chez Remy, boosting the hotel's bottom line. If she could bring in more customers, she would finally feel like an integral part of her family.
But what if you're wrong? What if your passionate creations don't save the day? What if you're always incidental? Lately those doubts had been growing, gnawing at her the way they always did when she'd been in one place too long.
But this is home. You're supposed to be here.
Yeah? So why did she feel so out of step?
Swallowing hard, Melanie slammed the mental door on her demons. This would work if LeSoeur would just kindly move his hunky bod out of her way.
"How long are you going to monkey with that turkey before you admit defeat?" he asked.
"Hush up, Mr. Negativity." Grimly she pounded on the turkey's behind with the flat of her palm. "That's the difference between you and me, LeSoeur. I'm a positive thinker."
"You believe that's the biggest difference between us?"
"No, the biggest difference between us is that you're a stick-in-the-mud and I'm an innovator."
"I thought the biggest difference was that you're a hard-headed prima donna who's used to getting her own way and I'm--"
"And you're the guy who's here to put me in my place." She finished his sentence. "Is that it?"
"Melanie," he said. "Your mother and sister hired me as executive chef for a reason. Get used to it. I'm making an executive decision. Chocolate turkey is off the menu."
Defiantly, she lifted her chin. His eyes sparked darkly, letting Melanie know he meant business. The elastic band around her ponytail felt unnaturally tight and her throat was so dry she couldn't swallow. His self-control infuriated her as much as it pointed out her own lack of it.
At two o'clock in the afternoon the kitchen was gearing up for the restaurant's evening opener at five. The three prep cooks were industriously peeling, chopping, slicing and dicing, but they weren't too busy to cast surreptitious glances their way.
Melanie settled the turkey on a Lucite cutting board and wiped her hands against her apron before dropping them onto her hips. From the minute her oldest sister, Charlotte, general manager of the Hotel Marchand, had introduced them to each other four months earlier, Melanie and Robert had been assessing each other's jugular.
Her instant dislike of the man had as much to do with his bossiness--he reminded her far too much of her ex-husband, David--as it did with the fact she found his good looks heart-stoppingly devastating. How was it that she could be so attracted to someone who rubbed her the wrong way on five hundred different levels?
And then there was the not-so-small matter that her mother and Charlotte should have offered the executive chef position to her, rather than bringing in a total stranger.
There was that insignificant feeling again, as if she was nothing but an afterthought. The tag end of the family.
She firmly believed her father, Remy, would have wanted her to have the job if he had still been alive. It was almost four years to the day since he had been killed by a drunk driver in a car crash on Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. An accident that still haunted her because she felt responsible.
Melanie knew her guilt wasn't logical or rational, and she understood that no one in the family blamed her. But she blamed herself. She couldn't help thinking that if she hadn't gotten divorced, hadn't gone through a vicious bout of self-doubt and depression, that her mother, Anne, wouldn't have whisked her away on a two-week vacation to Tuscany to cheer her up during the hotel's busiest time of year.
And if they hadn't been in Italy, Anne would have been home, and her husband would never have gone out into the storm that horrible, horrible night. Somewhere in the back of her mind, Melanie honestly believed that if she hadn't been an impulsive wild child, disobeying her parents' wishes and marrying David on the spur of the moment and then sorrowfully living to regret it, her father would not have died.
A wave of pain, as gut-wrenching, as when she'd first heard the awful news, washed over her.
Melanie had stayed longer in Tuscany to finish her cooking courses, but, homesick for her husband, Anne had decided to return early. Even now, Melanie could still remember, with perfect clarity, the moment her world had changed forever.