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Once upon a time, Sienna Rossi thought as she sat back in a creaky staffroom chair, restaurants were filled with wonderful guests who loved your food and drink and smiled sweetly to the waiting staff.
Then she grimaced at the memory of the businessman who had snapped his fingers at her not once but twice within ten minutes, because first there had been too much ice in his drink and then his starter had arrived with a garnish of salad leaves which had clearly been added specifically to poison him. No leaves. Those days were gone.
I could have decorated the shoulders of his expensive business suit with the salad leaves and poured the dressing over his shiny head, Sienna thought.
But she wouldn't have done it, of course.
There was far too little dressing on the salad to do any serious damage. Also, successful head waiters did not do things like that in exclusive country house hotels—especially head waiters who wanted desperately to be promoted to restaurant managers.
Now, if he had ordered Chef André's signature Hollandaise sauce…That might have been a different story.
Sienna yawned widely before reaching down to pull off her stylish high-heeled shoes and massaging her feet with a satisfied sigh of relief. She should be used to swollen hot feet and crushed toes after ten years in the restaurant trade but it never got easier—especially in luxury hotels which excelled in fine dining.
Greystone Manor had become famous for fabulous food and its glorious English country house setting, and business lunches were booked weeks in advance. She should be delighted that they had a full house every lunch and dinner service. Only it was her job, as head waiter and sommelier, to make sure that every single one of the sixty diners enjoyed some of the best food and wine in England, excellent service, and came away feeling that they had shared in the aristocratic lifestyle that living in a stately home could bring.
Unashamed award-winning luxury was tricky to pull off day after day.
It was like being an actress in a top London show, who had signed up to perform at both the matinee and the evening performances six days a week. In full make-up and tight costume, combined with even less comfortable shoes.
Singing and dancing on tables optional.
Sienna glanced at the huge antique wall clock as she rubbed the life back into her toes. Fifteen minutes to go. The new management team had called a special meeting to announce who they had decided to appoint to two crucial posts in their award-winning restaurant.
In a few minutes she would know the name of the new head chef. And find out who was going to be the restaurant manager who would be running front of house. That magical combination of wonderful food and excellent service which would take the Manor to the very top!
A shiver of anxiety ran across her shoulders and down her back, and she quickly checked that the staffroom was still empty. Of course she was nervous. But nobody else could know how scared she truly was.
Scared? Who was she kidding? Make that terrified.
On the glossy surface she was 'Miss Rossi'. The elegant and professional head waiter who was always immaculately turned out and who presented the perfect formal image the Manor aspired to in their fine-dining restaurant.
They would probably be horrified and totally amazed to know that the real Sienna Rossi was quaking inside the designer suit and shoes.
It had taken her four years of hard work to rebuild her shattered confidence to the point where she could even think about applying for the role of restaurant manager, in which she would be responsible for running her own projects and team.
This was going to be her dream job.
After so much sacrifice and hard work it was time to prove that she was capable of coming through heartbreak and rebuilding a career for herself.
A career in which she would never have to trust and rely on another person to make her dreams come true.
She needed this job so badly.
'You were a total star today. Did anyone tell you that? If I had an Oscar I would hand it over in an instant!'
Sienna blinked up from her reverie as her best friend Carla burst through the swing doors with a characteristic gush of black suited hotel receptionist elegance and single city-girl attitude.
'Thanks. You're cutting it fine today,' Sienna replied with a smile. 'I thought the staff meeting was at four.'
Carla grabbed what was left of Sienna's coffee and swigged it down in one gulp before sighing out loud as the espresso cup hit the saucer.
'It is. Two of the guests managed to get lost in the maze. I know, I know.' Carla waved both hands in the air. 'That is supposed to be the point of having a proper maze in the first place. But in February? I'm freezing! It has taken me twenty minutes, using cellphones and a whistle, but they are now sitting all comfy and warm by the fire with hot tea and crumpets. Unlike the rest of us.'
Carla shivered inside her smart suit and shoved her hands deep under her armpits as Sienna poured her a fresh hot coffee.
'"Chefs in Kilts"!' Carla suddenly squealed, reaching forward to snatch up the colour supplement of the Hotel Catering magazine. 'Why didn't you tell me? I've been waiting all week for this! Who have they got as Hunk of the Month this time? Maybe we'll be working with one of these hot young celebrity chefs in a few weeks. Wouldn't that be totally cool?'
Not if I have anything to do with it, we won't, Sienna thought in silence. Never again! Been there and do not want to go back, even for a visit. And it would not be cool.
Carla shook her head before passing Sienna her precious magazine. 'See you in five minutes. And best of luck with the job, sweetie—not that you need it. Every confidence!' And with a small finger wave she was gone.
Sienna chuckled and started gathering together the coffee cups, but as she did so the magazine flipped open and the breath froze in her lungs at the sight of a studio photograph of a tall, muscular man in a white T-shirt and tartan kilt.
Hunk of the Month: Brett Cameron.
In an instant she was transported back twelve years, to the cramped and crowded kitchen of Trattoria Rossi. And her first passing glimpse of Aunt Maria's new trainee chef.
She'd been sixteen and had wandered straight from school into the kitchen, where her father and older brother, Frankie, had been prepping for the evening service. Training places at Rossi's were fought over at the catering college, and only the best students made the grade.
Dominating the kitchen had been a skinny teenager with fire in his eyes who'd had the cheek to argue with her brother, Frankie, over the best way to divide fresh basil.
And she had been smitten.
Completely. Absolutely. Without hesitation or rational thought.
Just one look. That was all it took.
She closed her eyes and revisited the vivid image that had been burnt into her memory all of those years ago.
Under a striped bandana, his long blond hair had been tied back in a ponytail which had highlighted the hard lines of a face so intense with suppressed fire and energy it that seemed to vibrate out and fill the air around him.
Every ounce of his concentration had been focused on the fresh green basil leaves in front of him, which he was tearing with long delicate fingers, while Frankie had shredded more fragrant leaves with a curved blade into thin strips.
Each of them had sprinkled sea salt and a little extra virgin olive oil onto their own stack of basil.
She had watched, entranced, as Frankie and then the blond had tasted each of the leaves in turn, with bread, then cheese and plum tomatoes, going back and forth between the two chopping boards until the blond had smiled up at Frankie and nodded.
Her brother had slapped the blond on the shoulder—which she had never seen him do to another chef in his life—and they'd turned around, smiling, to face her.
And for just one fraction of a second the skinny teenager had glanced up in her direction with such power and intense focus that it had felt as if a pair of pale blue lasers were boring holes through her skull.
Of course Frankie had broken off from the work to introduce his little sister to their new trainee, Brett, but by then she'd been a gibbering wreck.
No wonder he had responded to her squeaky hello with a low grunt. To Brett she must have seemed like just another idiot teenage girl—an interloper in this special world of edible sorcery where chefs were the magicians.
The fact that she'd been plump, awkward, clumsy and painfully shy when boys were around probably hadn't helped much, either.
For the next six weeks, which Brett had spent learning the trade in the Trattoria Rossi kitchen, it had been amazing how many excuses Sienna had found to be in the kitchen at the same time.
Desperate for the chance to be close to Brett for a few seconds.
To smell him.
To feel the frisson of energy that seemed to spark in the very air around him as he worked feverishly. To hear his voice respond with 'Chef!' when her father passed an order for a salad or cold starter.
To run to the dining table on Sunday afternoons so that she could have the chair facing Brett at the family and crew communal meals.
No other boy at school or in her life had come close to the great Brett Cameron.
She had spent her schooldays in a dreamy daze, in anticipation of those precious few moments when she could see him again, in the evening and at weekends.
Even if she had been so shy back then that she'd been totally incapable of speaking to him. That would have been far too terrifying even to consider.
Brett Cameron had been her first crush.
For a fleeting second Sienna succumbed to a ripple of those same teenage fears and intense shyness. She wasn't the first schoolgirl who had ever felt like a total outsider and fraud, and no doubt she would not be the last, but merely thinking back to those sad days was enough to take her to a dark place.
She shook off the memory and blinked hard to clear her head.
They had both come a long way since then.
Sienna smiled down at the magazine article and chuckled to herself for the first time that day. Hunk of the Month, indeed!
He was still the best-looking chef she had ever seen!
Back then, the nineteen-year-old Brett had been a tall, skinny teenager with a total obsession for food. His only clothing had been chef's trousers and two identical off-white T-shirts that had become increasingly less fragrant as each week went on.
Now he looked as if a team of professional stylists had spent hours working on him. And it had been money well spent for one of the top chefs now taking the catering world by storm. Last time she had seen his name in the press he had been accepting an award for a hotel restaurant in Australia. That probably explained the suntan which made those blue eyes sparkle even brighter.
He certainly had filled out. The white shirt stretched out across wide shoulders below a firm neck and a solid jawline defined by expertly clipped short blond hair.
Two things had not changed.
His eyes were still winter-sea-blue. Smiling out at her.
Sharp. Intelligent. Focused.
Tiny white smile lines fanned out from the corners of his tanned face. Well, he certainly had plenty to smile about. He had come a long way from Maria Rossi's tiny trattoria in North London to headline in the Food and Drink Awards 'Top New Chef list.
And then there were his hands. In this photograph they were splayed out on each hip. Those clever fingers, which had used to move so fast that she'd been afraid to blink in case she missed something crucial. Long narrow fingers. How many hours had she spent dreaming about those hands?
She had fallen for those hands. No doubt about it. The only other man who had come close to having hands like those was Angelo.
Oh, Brett. If you only knew the trouble you have caused me!
She blamed him entirely for giving her a chef addiction virus. That well known form of contagion and pestilence.
At college, Carla had given her the nickname of 'chef magnet'.
Any chef within a hundred-mile radius would somehow sense that Sienna was within range and hit on her.
The chiming of the clock snapped Sienna out of her dreamy thoughts, and she glanced at the photo for one last time before closing the magazine and squeezing her swollen feet back into her shoes.
Drat! She was going to be late!
One more thing to blame on Brett Cameron! Wherever in the world he might be!
She need not have rushed! Sienna had been sitting very impatiently with the rest of the hotel management team for almost ten minutes before Patrick breezed into the dining room with head chef André following a few steps behind.
Patrick was the stylish hotel manager for the company who owned the Manor and a small group of other luxury hotels in the most prestigious locations across Europe—hotels where Sienna had every intention of working as a top restaurant manager. After she'd persuaded them to give her the position of restaurant manager here at Greystone Manor, of course.
She wanted this job so badly. It was everything she had been working towards since the first time she'd put on a waitress uniform in the Rossi family restaurant back in London.
Little wonder that her heart was racing.
Patrick looked around the room and smiled as he tapped gently on a water glass with a table knife. A sense of anxious anticipation ran around the room as the nervous chatter fell away.
'Thank you all for coming at such short notice. As you know, our brilliant head chef André Michon will be retiring at the end of the month, after thirty-two years of amazing work at the Manor. I'm already looking forward to his retirement party, but in the meantime André's decision has given the management team a real headache. How can we possibly find another chef with the same passion for excellence and quality that has made the Manor so successful?'
Please just get on with it, Sienna thought, bristling with impatience. Please tell me who I will be working with from next month!
'I am delighted to tell you that we have interviewed some of the brightest young chefs in the world over these last few months, and after much deliberation there was one clear winner. Ladies and gentlemen, I am very pleased to announce that the new head chef at Greystone Manor will be…TV celebrity chef Angelo Peruzi! I know that you must all be thrilled as I am.'