Paris might be the city of love, but it makes trainee chef Piper Rush feel lonely! It's only the tentative bond she forges with her boss, brooding billionaire Frederic Lafontaine, that gives her the sense of belonging she's always craved
Gradually losing his sight, Frederic keeps everyone at arm's length. But as Piper brings laughter and light back into his heart, she also opens his eyes to what life could be like together. Can Piper convince Frederic that she is the missing ingredient to his happily-ever-after?
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There should be a law against a man looking so good in a tuxedo. Staring at the man asleep in the chair, Piper felt an appreciative shiver. Monsieur Frederic Lafontaine had shed his jacket and untied his tie, yet he still looked like a million dollars, what with the way his shirt pulled taut across his linebacker-sized shoulders. She had to start using his dry cleaner. The guy must have been sprawled here for hours, and yet his clothes didn't have a single wrinkle. Piper's uniform wouldn't last five minutes. In factshe ran a hand down the front of her black skirtit hadn't.
Then again, she didn't have cheekbones that could cut glass or thick brown hair that begged to be touched, either. Maybe perfection came in bundles.
Taking a deep breath, she touched his shoulder and tried not to think about the broad muscles beneath her fingers. Eight months of working for the man, and she still hadn't shaken her attraction. "Monsieur? You need to wake up. It's after seven o'clock."
When he didn't respond, she shook his shoulder again, this time a little more aggressively. The motion did the trick. Slowly, his eyes opened, and he blinked unseeingly. "You fell asleep in the chair," she told him.
"Oh." His voice was thick with sleep, making it deeper and rougher than usual.
"Whatwhat time is it?"
"What?" He bolted to his feet, arms akimbo, his right hand connecting with the cup of coffee Piper set on the end table only seconds before. The cup took flight, sending coffee over everything.
"Dammit!" he hollered as the hot liquid splashed his shirt. He immediately started pulling at the cloth, lifting it from his skin. "How many times have I told you, you must tell me when you put something within reach? You know I can't see anything put to the side."
It was hard to say much of anything seeing as how he jumped up before she had a chance to open her mouth. "I'll get you a towel."
"Don't bother." He'd already yanked the shirt free from his waistband. "Clean up the rest of the spill before it stains the carpet. I'm going to take a shower." He turned to head upstairs.
"Wait," Piper called.
Moving this time before he could speak, she scooped up the cup from where it had fallen on the carpet, half an inch from the toe of his shoe. "You were going to crush it," she said, holding the china teacup in front of his face.
If he appreciated her heads-up behavior, he didn't say so. "Tell Michel when he arrives that I will be ready shortly. And make sure my briefcase is by the front door. On the left," he added with emphasis.
As if she would leave it somewhere else. Piper bit back the sarcastic response. She learned a long time ago that some fights weren't meant to be won. Arguing with a man who was wearing hot coffee on his stomach was definitely one of those fights. Instead, she waited until he'd stalked his way upstairs, then treated herself to a glare in his direction. It would serve him right if she moved his bag to the right just to spite him. Because goodness knows the world might end if the briefcase was on the wrong side of the doorway.
Not that she would actually move the thing. Put out or not, she wasn't so petty that she'd pick on a blind manor half-blind man as the case may be. Truth was, nitpicky as they were, monsieur's "rules" served a purpose. When she took this job, it was made very clear his limited field of vision required everything in the house to be just so. Chief on the list was that nothing should be set to the side without his knowledge. His lack of peripheral vision might cause a mishap, he'd explained. Most of the time, the system worked. There were times in fact, such as when he crossed the room with his slow, purposeful strides, that Piper forgot the man had trouble seeing.
After double-checking on the briefcasewhich was on the left as alwaysshe headed for the utility closet. "So goes another fun-filled day in Paris," she said as she marched into the kitchen for her cleaning supplies. Naturally, the coffee had fallen on the handmade Persian carpet. That meant instead of using the nice handy carpet-cleaning machine in the closet, she had to get the stain up with water and a vinegar paste.
This was not how she expected her year abroad to go. Her year here was supposed to signal the start of a new and exciting life. The wonderful moment when she stopped being dumpy Piper Rush and became Piper Rush, chef extraordinaire who dazzled the culinary institute with her skills and enthralled French men with her American wit. In short, the complete opposite of her life in East Boston.
She should have known better.
Didn't take long for her to realize that Paris was exactly the same as Boston, only in French. Which actually made it worse than Boston. Despite spending hours shoulder to shoulder with a dozen other people, she hadn't made a single close friend. Everyone was too busy trying to impress Chef Despelteau. In a way, you'd think the fact that she couldn't impress the man if she tried would help her cause, but no. Yesterday, after she didn't use enough confit to brown her chicken, he declared her cassoulet flavorless and spent ten minutes lecturing her on the importance of taste, even when making "peasant food." All her classmates did was snicker. City of Lights, her foot. More like the City of the Unfriendly.
Even Frederic barely paid attention to her, unless there was an errand to run, or she needed to wake him up. He was too busy lecturing at the university or heading off to some fancy social event.
The perpetual loneliness she fought to keep under wraps threatened to wedge free. She had to swallow to keep it from rising up and choking her. God, what she wouldn't give for someone to talk to. Or to go home.
Out of habit, her hand reached for the cell phone tucked in her apron only to leave it behind. It was still the middle of the night in Boston. Her sister, Patience, would still be asleep. Patiencethe only reason she was sticking things out to completion. Her sister was convinced Piper was living the dream, and considering how much Patience had sacrificed so Piper could actually have a dream, she didn't dare disturb the fantasy. Besides, her sister had issues of her own. She and her boss's nephew were doing some kind of back-and-forth that had Patience on edge. The last thing she needed right now was a whiny baby sister burning up the data package complaining because her year abroad wasn't all sunshine and roses.
She carried her supplies into the salon, pausing when she reached the front window. A few blocks away, the Eiffel Tower loomed tall, reminding her she really had no right complaining. She might be lonely, but she was a lonely person living in luxury. Instead of monsieur's mansion, she could be living in some ratty apartment battling roaches for breakfast. Or worse, living on the streets. Been there, done both. She didn't feel like doing either again.
If only she had someone to share Paris with, then things wouldn't be so bad. It wasn't going to happen, though. If she hadn't found a kindred spirit yet, she wasn't going to. She was simply going to have to suck things up, the way she always did.
Speaking of sucking, she had a carpet to clean. Staring at the stain darkening the beige carpet, she sighed. This better not be a sign of how the rest of her day was going to go.
Frederic winced as he peeled the wet shirt from his body. Not because the liquid stung his skin, although it did, but because he was appalled at his behavior. Yelling at his housekeeper that way. Like a child throwing a tantrum. Didn't he swear he would never be that way? Become one of those angry invalids who took their bad moods out on others? Yet the first time he spills a drink, he lashes out. Embarrassment was no excuse.
What did he expect, falling asleep in the salon like that? It was the last glass of Bordeaux. Knowing the way alcohol went to his head and made him overly pensive, he never should have indulged. Last night found him sitting for hours, watching the tower's twinkling lights, his mind a sea of morose thoughts.
The dampness from his shirt found its way to his palms. Resisting the urge to hurl the garment across the room, he draped it on top of the duvet for Piper to find later. He stripped off the rest of his tuxedo as well, making sure he returned the suit and his shoes to their assigned places in the closet. Oh, but for those days when undressing meant toeing off your shoes wherever you stood and tossing your clothes in a heap.
Obviously, last night's moroseness hadn't subsided. Why else would he be bemoaning a past that he couldn't get back? After all, he'd come to terms with his failing eyesight long before it started to steal his peripheral vision. From the moment the doctors first told him his retina was degenerating, in fact. He knew full well that one day the tunnel through which he viewed the world would close completely, leaving him blind. He'd accepted his fate and framed his life in anticipation. And when the time came, he would shoulder the burden alone, the way a person should. He wouldn't drag others down with him. A promise that, until this morning, he'd done a very good job of keeping.
He owed his housekeeper a very large apology.
When the employment agency first recommended the American culinary student, he thought the idea ridiculous. A temporary resident? She'd be too distracted by studies and sightseeing. But as it turned out, Piper was nothing short of exemplary. Today aside, she did her job quietly and unobtrusively. In fact, the two of them could go days without crossing paths. Precisely the kind of help Frederic preferred.
Today's mistake with the coffee was as much his fault as hers. She no doubt set down the cup to wake him, not expecting him to stand up so quickly.
He would definitely apologize.
Unfortunately, there wasn't time right now. Leaning in close, he read the time on his nightstand clock. With luck, he could shower and make his first class in plenty of time. Whether or not his morning began poorly didn't matter to his superiors at the university. They expected him to deliver his lectures on time, regardless. This evening, then. Before the symphony. He would find Piper and explain that he overreacted. Then they would both forget this morning ever happened.
Staining the carpet turned out to be the high point of the day.
First, cleaning the rug took longer than planned. In addition to the major stain, there were a dozen or so tiny spots that needed blotting. It took her forever to find them all, so by the time Piper finished, she was running late. Chef Despelteau was less than thrilled to see her slip through the door five minutes into his lecture.
"Uninspired," Chef Despelteau pronounced.
"Your spices, they do not dance, they plod. I expect my students to produce magic in the kitchen, not " He dropped his fork back onto the plate with an expression that was usually reserved for walking around landfills. Shaking his head, he moved on, his silence letting everyone know Piper wasn't worth more of his time.
" so pathetic. Why is she even here?"
The whispered comment drifted from the stovetop across the aisle. Apparently whoever said it didn't care if anyone heard him. Why should he, when the whole class was thinking the same thing?
Keeping her shoulders square, Piper stared straight ahead and pretended she didn't hear a thing. That was the number one rule. Never let them think they were getting to you. Never lose control. Never let them see you cry. Crying only gave the bullies power. Let them whisper behind her back all they wanted; she would not give them the satisfaction of seeing so much as a twitch.
She succeeded, too. All through Chef Despelteau's final remarks, through the Métro ride home, and even into the house. She managed to last until she saw the living room carpet and the faint brown ring reminding her she'd failed that task, too. Letting out the coarsest obscenity she knew, she broke down.
Screw cooking school. Tossing her bag in the chair, she stomped into the kitchen. Screw monsieur, too. Him and his impossible-to-clean carpeting. Screw Paris with its beautiful buildings and sidewalk cafés and shops she couldn't afford. She hated them all.
Carbs. She needed carbs. Yanking open the refrigerator door, she grabbed a wedge of cheddar cheese and an onion. Creamy, gooey macaroni and cheese, that's what this pity party needed. How's that for peasant food, Chef Despelteau?
Now if she would only stop crying. Sniffing back a fresh batch of tears, she grabbed the cheese grater and took to demolishing the cheddar to a shredded pulp.
"What now?" she snarled. What else could she add to her list of mistakes today?
Frederic blinked in shock. Great. Yelling at her boss. That's what she could add. Because, of course.
Horrified, she turned back to the cheese. "I mean, about this mormorn " The tears were back. She scrunched her face trying to stop them.
A paper towel floated in front of her face.
"Is everything all right?"
Why'd he have to sound nice, too? It made things worse. "Fine." Taking the paper towel, she wiped her cheeks and blew her nose.
"You don't look fine."
"The cheese is making my eyes water."
"I see. It must be quite pungent."
Piper ignored the comment, choosing to wipe her nose again instead. "Did you need something, monsieur?"
A tentative smile worked its way across his features. Afraid to set her off again, probably. "I wanted to apologize for losing my temper this morning. The coffee, it was not your fault."
No, it wasn't, she wanted to say. She didn't. Since he apologized, the least she could do was be gracious in return. "I should have known better than to put a cup where you couldn't see it."
"And I should know better than to behave like a brat," he countered, one-upping her. "It's rude to blame others for my shortcomings."