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Faith Whitfield smiled at the doorman as he opened the rear door to the taxi and extended a hand. Grabbing her gloved hand, he helped her to her feet.
She'd come to record producer William "WJ" Raymond's West End Avenue high-rise river-view apartment to prepare the dessert menu for his daughter's engagement party. Tonight's menu would differ from the traditional one because most of the candies, cookies, cakes and tortes would be made with chocolate. And those familiar with Savanna Raymond knew she was a diehard chocoholic.
It was January eighth, and the number of projects Faith had committed to had increased instead of slowing down as they usually did during the postholiday season. It wouldn't have been a problem if Faith hadn't signed a contract with a major publisher for a book featuring her cake designs.
She'd admitted to her cousins Simone and Tessa Whitfield that she was tired, but the truth was that she was beyond tired. She was worn-out, done-in and completely exhausted. Faith's next projects included two cakes for afternoon and evening Valentine's Day wedding receptions.
Her smile was still in place when she stood on the sidewalk under the maroon canopy. "Thank you, Thomas," she said, reading the name tag pinned to his greatcoat.
The doorman touched the shiny brim of his cap. "You're quite welcome, Miss Whitfield."
His gaze lingered on her tall figure in a pair of jeans, low-heel boots and black wool wrap coat. He'd made it a point to remember the name of the incredibly beautiful dark-brown-skinned woman who'd come to see William Raymond. New York City luxury-apartment-building doormen were notorious gossips, and a housekeeper for the Raymonds had let it be known that Miss Whitfield had been hired to create a specialty wedding cake for their daughter's Valentine's Day wedding.
Thomas rushed to open the door to the lobby as Miss Whitfield strode by with an oversize black leather bag slung over her shoulder. "I'll call to let someone know you're on your way up," he said to her as she walked past him.
Faith nodded, refusing to dwell on how long it would take her to bake and decorate a large heart-shaped chocolate and red currant torte for Savanna Raymond as she stepped into the elevator and pushed the button for the penthouse. Her newly hired assistant, a recent graduate of a highly regarded New York City culinary school, had spent two days collecting and cleaning orange, bay, citrus and beech leaves, using them as templates for the chocolate leaves that would top the torte.
She'd baked everything, with the exception of the heart-shaped torte and chocolate-covered fresh fruits in her shopLet Them Eat Cakecarefully packaging and labeling the contents before they were delivered to the Raymond residence the night before. The Raymonds had invited forty guests, and Faith had created a special gift for each: chocolate candies in edible boxes.
The door to the household staff entrance was open as Faith exited the elevator. A tall man standing a few feet away mumbled a greeting when he recognized her. He worked security for William Raymond.
A sensor set off a soft chiming as Faith walked through the door and into the stainless-steel kitchen reminiscent of those in restaurants or cooking schools. The Raymonds had employed a live-in chef who prepared gourmet meals for his employer and their guests. The smell of freshly brewed coffee reminded Faith that she hadn't had her morning cup of coffee.
Placing her leather bag on a stool in the corner, she made her way through the kitchen to an area with walk-in closets to hang up her coat. Selecting a white tunic and toque from a supply stacked on a shelf in another closet, she covered her blouse and hair.
Returning to the kitchen, she opened the bag and took out a plastic container with the chocolate leaves and several others filled with sliced kumquat, kiwi, strawberries, mandarin oranges, star fruit and bananas. After a cup of coffee with a liberal splash of cream, Faith busied herself arranging the fruit on platters. She stirred a mixture of sugar crystals and sugar syrup until the soft icing was the consistency she sought for a fondant she planned to flavor with a rum extract. In the two hours it took for the fondant to dry, she mixed the ingredients for the torte and placed the cake in a preheated oven. Working nonstop, she coated the strawberries with fondant before dipping them into couverture, placing them on parchment paper to set. She repeated the exercise with the other fruit, sans the fondant.
It was late morning when Kurt Payton strolled into the kitchen. The tall, lanky chef had soulful blue-gray eyes that were mesmerizing. His natural culinary talent had flourished only after he'd completed an apprenticeship under the tutelage of a tyrannical master chef at a three-star Boston restaurant. Kurt had eventually set up his own catering business, but had given it up twenty-two years later to work exclusively for William and Linda Raymond.
The distinctive lines around Kurt's eyes crinkled as he watched Faith Whitfield put the finishing touches on the torte. She'd spread a chocolate ganache over the top, sprinkled it with finely crumbled pistachio croquant, then topped it off with fresh raspberries on puffs of meringue.
"I bet you'll never eat chocolate again," he drawled lazily.
Faith looked up. A hint of a smile played at the corners of her generous mouth when she spied the chef in a white tunic, black pinstripe pants and a pair of black leather clogs. He'd concealed his wiry salt-and-pepper hair under a black bandanna.
"No lie, Kurt."
"Are you finished here?" He wanted to start preparing for the party.
She nodded. "I will be as soon as I put these in the refrigerator." She pointed to half a dozen parchment-lined trays filled with the fresh fruit confectionery. The chocolate-covered fruit were turned into candies because their natural sweetness harmonized well with the bitter chocolate when dusted with a sugar coating in the form of a fondant or the base of sweet almond paste.
Kurt moved over to the counter. He pointed to a tray. "What are these?"
"Kumquats. Take one and tell me if you like it."
He picked up one without the grated pistachios, popping it into his mouth. His eyes widened in surprise as he chewed thoughtfully. "You used an almond paste and orange liquor. Now, that's nice."
She curtsied as if he were royalty. "Coming from you, I'll take that as the ultimate compliment."
Kurt waved a hand. "If I'd met you a couple of years ago I would've asked you to work with me. We would've been a dynamic duo."
Faith lifted a tray and made her way to one of two walk-in refrigerators. "It wouldn't have worked," she said over her shoulder. "I prefer baking to cooking."
"You would've been my pastry chef." Kurt picked up two of the trays and followed her.
Faith pressed the foot lever on the refrigerator, and the door swung open. "I like working for myself." She liked being her own boss even if it meant working long hours. It was much more gratifying because she set her own hours and earned much more than she could've working for someone else.
Kurt's cell phone rang as he helped put the last tray into the refrigerator. Excusing himself, he walked out of the kitchen to answer the call as William Raymond III, affectionately called BJ, shuffled in drinking a bottle of beer.
Faith watched him out of the corner of her eye as she washed her hands in a sink. He had on a pair of baggy jeans and nothing else. It was obvious he worked out because there wasn't an ounce of fat on his compact muscular frame. His shaved head, gold-brown coloring and trimmed mustache and goatee and strong features hinted of a sensuality that definitely wasn't lost on the opposite sex.
"Waz-zup, boo?" BJ asked, angling his head and leering at Faith.
"Hello," she answered as she dried her hands on a towel before retrieving her bag off the stool. She wanted to tell him she wasn't his peer, and definitely not his boo.
"Where are you rushing off to?" he asked when she headed out of the kitchen.
Faith decided it best not to respond to his query as she went to get her coat. She hadn't taken more than three steps when she found that BJ had come up behind her. Each time she moved, he also moved.
He leaned closer, the stale odor of beer wafting over her face. "Excuse you for what?"
Her attempt to sidestep him was thwarted when he came face-to-face with her. "Please step back."
A sneer pulled one side of his slack mouth downward. "Did anyone ever tell you that you have a sexy-ass mouth?"
Faith knew physically she was no match for Billy Raymond, yet she didn't want to give him the impression that she was afraid of him. She pushed against his solid chest. "Get out of my face!"
Propping an arm on the wall over her head, he dipped his head in an attempt to kiss her. She raised her hand at the same time an arm snaked around BJ's throat and jerked him back.
"You heard the lady, junior," crooned a soft male voice inches from his ear. "Get out of her face, and go sleep it off." The man held out a hand. "Give me the beer."
Billy's bravado fled with the soft-spoken warning. He pushed the bottle into the outstretched hand, turned and made his way down the hallway.
Faith hadn't realized how fast her heart was beating as she pulled off her cap and slumped against the closet door to collect her wits. She forced a smile. "Thank you."
Cursing softly to himself, Ethan McMillan watched his godson's retreat. Billy had begun acting out after his father ordered him back to New York from Florida. WJ had received a veiled death threat that targeted his son after WJ had signed a much-talked-about new artist to his label. However, Billy refused to allow his father's bodyguards to monitor his every move, and the nineteen-year-old sought to punish WJ by openly smoking, drinking and now sexually harassing women.
The rumors spreading throughout the hip-hop community claimed that WJ had lured an up-and-coming hip-hop phenom away from a rival record label by offering him an unheard-of sum with perks usually reserved for multi-platinum-selling artists.
William Raymond, Jr., had made a name for himself as a maverick in the music industry when he set up his own label to compete with Sony, Atlantic and Columbia Records before he'd celebrated his thirtieth birthday. In the two decades that followed, he'd signed artists whose debut albums went platinum while earning a Grammy for Producer of the Year three times. His prominence and wealth increased accordingly.
"Are you okay?" Ethan asked, turning around and looking at the woman for the first time. His eyes widened in astonishment as he stared at her. Although she hadn't worn any makeup, he found her breathtakingly beautiful.
Her flawless dark skin shimmered with a healthy glow. Her short hairstyle that wouldn't have worked for most women was perfect for her. Her large eyes, tilting at the corners, were hypnotic, and her short straight nose complemented a pair of high cheekbones and small chin. His admiring gaze lingered on her lush parted lips.
Faith patted her chest in an attempt to calm herself. "Yes." The word came out in a breathless whisper.
It was her turn to stare at the man who'd interrupted Billy Raymond's unsolicited advances. He was tall, at least six inches taller than her five-eight height, and startlingly attractive. She wasn't able to pinpoint his age, but his smooth tawny brown skin belied the profusion of gray in his close-cropped hair. His sparkling sherry-colored eyes reminded Faith of newly minted pennies. With his black suit, shoes, tie and white shirt, she wondered if he, too, was also a member of WJ's security team.
"Are you certain?" Ethan asked. His deep voice was low, soothing.
Faith smiled. "Very certain."
"Do you want me to speak to Mr. Raymond about his son?"
"No. That won't be necessary. I was just leaving." She opened one of the closets, unbuttoned the tunic and dropped it and the toque into a large wicker basket. Less than a minute later she'd belted her coat around her waist and slung her bag over her shoulder.
Ethan reached for her elbow. "I'll escort you downstairs."
Faith met his steady gaze. "That won't be necessary."
"I believe it is necessary, Miss "
"Faith Whitfield," she supplied.
Ethan smiled, attractive lines fanning out around his eyes and dimples winking in his handsome face like thumbprints. He extended his hand. "Ethan McMillan." He wasn't disappointed when she placed her hand in his. "Ready?"
"Yes." Tightening his gentle grip, he led her back through the kitchen to the elevator.
Faith nodded to the guard. He returned her nod with one of his own, and waved to Ethan.
"You can let go of my hand now," Faith said softly once the elevator door closed behind them.
Releasing her hand, Ethan moved over to the opposite wall and pushed his hands inside the pockets of his trousers. "You're a chef." His question was more a statement.
"Actually I'm a pastry chef," she corrected. Ethan smiled again, and Faith couldn't believe how much the gesture transformed his face from stoic to irresistibly captivating.
"Yum, yum the dessert lady. What did you make?"
She couldn't help smiling. "A little bit of this and a little bit of that."
Ethan's sweeping raven-black eyebrows lifted slightly. "Are you always this mysterious?"
"No. It's just that I'd like what I make to be a surprise."
"For everyone attending the party."
His dimples winked again as Ethan lowered his head and stared at the toes of his highly polished shoes. "I suppose I'll have to wait to be surprised just like everyone else." The descent to the lobby ended and the elevator door opened with a soft swoosh. Cupping Faith's elbow, he escorted her to the lobby. "Do you have a car?"
"No. I'm taking a taxi."
"Where are you going?"
"I'm going home."
"Where's home?" he asked.
"The West Village." Normally she would've taken the subway downtown but not today. She wanted to go home and take a nap before tonight's party.