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'Gwenno! What took you so long to answer the phone, love?'
For once, Gwen was glad her mother rang every day.
'Mam! It's great to hear from you, but this time I really can't stop—I've got my hands full, getting ready for this big flash party tonight. I was terrified you were one of the kitchen staff, calling in sick!' She gasped, and then made a face. Blurting out the truth to her mother like that was a big mistake. Everyone back at home had to go on thinking she was making a success of her new life. They had to 'That is—I mean I've got more than enough people working for me, but each of them has their own speciality. I can't afford to lose a single person!' She finished in a rush, her fingers crossed. In reality, Gwen was desperate to cut costs. Rather than employ enough staff, she was currently doing the work of at least three people. Trying to save money was costing her a lot. She was so exhausted, there had been a real danger she might have dozed off during the party preparations. That was why she had dashed home to snatch a twenty-minute nap in the middle of the day. She checked her watch, and discovered with horror she had been asleep for nearly an hour and a half.
'My God, I should be at the restaurant! We'll never open in time! I've got so much to do!'
Dashing around the room, she tried to gather together her clothes for the evening with one hand, while the other clamped the mobile to her ear.
Gwen's mother had an answer for everything. This disaster was no exception.
'You've told us all about your dozens of staff, Gwenno. Let them start earning all that money you pay them!'
'Dozens of staff? Er yes, yes, of course I have it's just that I like to do as much as I can myself. It's my own fault for loving the job so much. I'm still not used to being sole owner of the restaurant, and sometimes it gets a bit much,' Gwen said quickly, the reply sounding horribly false to her own ears. Was that a tinge of suspicion she heard in her mother's voice?
'We didn't lend you all that money to run yourself into the ground, Gwenno. It was supposed to help you become Le Rossignol's chef-patron.' Mrs Williams said each foreign word carefully. 'See? We're all practising for when we come over to visit you!'
Gwen's heart hit the floor, but she managed to manufacture a careless laugh.
'Great! I can't wait to see you all again. It's been months!'
'It's been four months, three weeks and five days since you finally managed to buy the restaurant,' Mrs Williams said. She sounded almost as proud as Gwen felt, when she had the energy. 'And there was me and your dad worried to death you'd given up a good steady future with us in the shop to chase some silly dream!'
Gwen wanted to cry, but didn't dare. The thought of her family discovering the truth behind her supposedly successful new life in Malotte was more than her pride could stand. She was adamant she could make a success of the business, but times were hard. Every booking had to be treated with great care. Much to Gwen's disgust, that included tonight's reception for a hideous countess. The horrible woman only wanted to make a good impression on her rich stepson. She wasn't interested in Gwen's skill or the restaurant, merely in her own reputation.
Gwen could only hope the man in question would be more appreciative.
Etienne Moreau's day was equally busy, but his timetable ran according to his own schedule. That was exactly as he liked it. Even his social life now ran like clockwork, but he was increasingly finding socialising to be a sick joke these days. People considered his name a big attraction on a charity invitation list, so he sometimes felt obliged to give them what they wanted. If only I weren't always surrounded by apple-polishers, he thought, scrubbing long, strong fingers irritably through his thatch of dark hair. A proper conversation wasn't so much to ask, was it? He disliked having to be constantly on the lookout for lame-duck projects, or women on the make.
The country's grandest money men had invited Etienne onto their board of directors. Their idea had been to simply use his title to impress their shareholders, nothing more. Within days they had discovered their mistake. Etienne had been born into privilege, but that had never been enough for him. His late father had considered work undignified, but Etienne had never been satisfied to be simply a name on some headed notepa-per.
He sighed. In exactly ninety minutes' time, a servant would be ready to step forward as Etienne descended the main staircase of his chateau. The man would insert a freshly picked carnation into his master's buttonhole before opening the front door. It had been the same in his late father's time, and for as far back as anyone could remember, so Etienne, albeit reluctantly, humoured his faithful staff. In one brief, heart-stopping moment a couple of years ago, he had imagined his own son and heir taking over, in his turn.
But that was before Etienne had learned the truth about a lot of things, including human nature. Now he focused only on his work, and his ruthless single-minded approach had resulted in endless successes. In fact, for a man with nothing to prove, Etienne was proving unstoppable. A shame that even this was beginning to pall.
I need to find a new challenge, he thought. He had been brought up to slip smoothly into the role of Count of Malotte. Now he was actually in charge, the largely ceremonial role gave him too much time to brood. He wanted distraction. Perhaps this evening's engagement might offer something different?
Gwen showered and dressed in a flash. Unable to face the pile of unopened letters on her dressing table, she stuffed them into a drawer. Lately, they contained nothing but bad news. Her new life was turning out to have some hard, horrible moments, but she was determined not to give up. Opening her wardrobe, she took out the dress she would change into before the guests arrived at Le Rossignol that evening. Gwen's clients at her restaurant expected a total dining experience. That included exchanging small talk with a calm and assured chef-patron. It was the only part of her job Gwen wasn't keen on, but it was turning out to be a very important source of new business. She had to persevere, and it was tough.
Gwen had always dreamed of becoming the chef in a top-class restaurant. She had managed it in record time by going into partnership with her best friend from catering college. Carys had supplied the glamour and business sense. Gwen had done the cooking, and kept her head down. Their system had worked perfectly, until her partner's romantic adventures had thrown the business into chaos. Carys had vanished, leaving Gwen high and dry. Unable to find another partner, Gwen had been faced with a stark choice. She could sell up and go home. That would mean admitting to her parents that 'The Le Rossignol affair', as they called it, was a big mistake. Or she could mortgage herself to the hilt and make her new life work, alone. One path led back to the safety of the village shop where she had been born. The other route disappeared into an unknown future, but at least it was her own. She would be independent, without the need to rely on other people.
Gwen had found it no real choice at all. She had spent sleepless nights trying to talk herself out of the mad idea, but in the end her dream had won. Instead of selling up, she had bought the balance of the business. Her family was convinced she was throwing good money after bad. Gwen had a horrible feeling they were right, but would never have admitted that in a million years. Besides, if she managed to pull it off she would have the satisfaction of saying, I did it all myself. She had always known it would be hard but now, all alone in a foreign country, there were times when she ached for a shoulder to cry on. One frantically busy day dissolved into another. Time was passing her by so fast. She sighed. Her greatest pleasure came from cooking the food, but she spent more time nowadays pandering to the people who ate it.
Carrying her dress downstairs, she laid it reverently on the back seat of her car. One eye on the time, she hopped into the driving seat and got another nasty shock. When she switched on the ignition, the car's petrol gauge barely moved out of the red zone. She groaned in horror. Not today, of all days! She didn't have time to stop off at the garage. She looked up at the bright cloudless sky, then down the winding country road towards town. It was downhill all the way to Le Rossignol. Maybe it was hot enough for the engine to run on fumes and good luck until she got there.
Five hours later, Gwen poured herself into her stunning dress. It was the only formal gown she had, and it was perfect for an aristocratic party. Cut from midnight-blue velvet, it clung to her generous curves in all the right places. She watched herself in the full-length mirror she had hung in her office to check her appearance at moments like this. Her soft blonde hair coiled like liquid gold over her bare shoulders. The effect was stunning, but Gwen wasn't impressed. All she saw was a girl from the Welsh valleys done up like a dog's dinner in a totally impractical dress that would show every mark.
That was exactly what the snooty countess of Malotte expected to see. With a long-suffering smile, Gwen went out to give her public what they demanded.
The restaurant's bar and lounge area was soon crowded. Girls hired for the evening moved among the glittering guests with trays of tempting titbits. Gwen's eyes darted around the room, looking for her client, the countess. Then her attention was grabbed by something far more interesting. A new arrival stood in the restaurant's entrance. Everything about him made her stop and stare. He surveyed the restaurant's crowded lounge bar with the haughty look of a general inspecting foot soldiers. It was an imposing sight. The newcomer was one of the tallest there, and his austere good looks singled him out in other ways, too. Everyone—absolutely everyone—turned to watch as the mystery man walked in.
To Gwen's astonishment he headed straight for her. Clusters of people standing around in the reception bar parted to let him through.
'Bonsoir. You must be Gwyneth Williams.'
He dipped his head in greeting. The fact he knew her name surprised her, and that wasn't all. She could feel him penetrating her polite disguise. His gaze seemed to recognise the social misfit within, and it made her nervous. She disguised her true feelings with a professional smile and stepped forward to greet him.
'Bonsoir, monsieur. Yes, I'm chef-patron here. I'm usually shut away in the kitchens, but tonight is a special occasion.'
His dark eyes glittered like jet. 'Indeed. I had no idea how special until a moment ago.' Charm flowed from him as he caught her hand and lifted it to his lips. 'My name is Etienne Moreau. I'm a frequent visitor to this restaurant. I'm sorry we've never met before.'
Gwen was enchanted. Despite the dozens of people surrounding them, he had the ability to make her feel as though they were totally alone. After weeks of work and worry, it felt as though all her Christmases had arrived at once.
'Thank you! Would you care for a drink, Monsieur Moreau?'
One of the waitresses moved forward, but Gwen waved her away. For the first time, socialising was giving her something to enjoy. She swung around to the other side of the bar, glad to have something to do. The sight of a man like Etienne Moreau with his soft dark hair and golden skin was enough to stun anyone into silence. The countess Sophie, who was throwing this reception, had dropped some heavy hints about her stepson's dislike of idle chit-chat. She had warned Gwen to give him a wide berth. If there hadn't been a big balance still outstanding on the party bill, Gwen would have delighted in ignoring the instruction. Now there was only the black marble bar between her and this gorgeous man. It didn't feel like much in the way of protection when Etienne's dark eyes could cut through the crowd like lasers. Gwen swallowed hard, reached for the ice bucket and gripped it tightly. No wonder the countess Sophie was so protective of her stepson. All the women within sight were drooling openly. The object of their desires barely acknowledged them. Gwen tried to behave in an equally offhand manner. She smiled pleasantly at her stellar guest. No one could complain if she was only serving the man. It was her job, after all.
'Excuse me, monsieur, what would you like?'
Etienne Moreau had paused to question a nearby guest about a recent business deal. His attention instantly swung back to Gwen. He focused his gaze on her as though she was the very last thing he expected to find at a family party. With warm concentration, his pensive brown eyes took in every detail from her tumble of honey-blonde hair to the curves sculpted by her beautiful blue evening dress. After due deliberation, his inspection returned to her eyes. Then he smiled, and Gwen's world stood still.
Posted April 14, 2012
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