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She had the list of this week's guests clutched so tightly in her hand her knuckles had turned white.
'Hey, Luce, what's the problem?' demanded Fiona, another member of the elite chalet staff as she snuck out of the chalet Fiona's usual good half-hour early. 'You look like you got some troublesome guests coming to stay.'
'No particular problem,' Lucy Tennant replied distractedly over Fiona's hearty laugh, glancing deep into the flames of the aromatic pine log fire Lucy had lit earlier. Was it only minutes before she had been feeling on top of the world? Shouldn't she still be feeling elated? She had just opened a letter explaining she had been voted top chalet girl both by her colleagues and by her employers and it was the first time she'd won anything, let alone an acknowledgement that meant so much to her. But along with that letter had come this list itemising the preferences of that week's guests, and for some reason, having read it, her confidence had shrunk to the size of a pea.
Tom Spencer-Dayly: no special requests. Sheridan Dalgleath: Porridge made with salt, plenty of single malt to drink and any beef served must be
William Montefiori: Only fresh pasta, never dried, please.
Theo Constantine: Good champagne—lots of it.
One other: It was the world of white that yawned after the fateful words One other that had got to her. For some reason it had sent a shiver down her spine. There was also an addendum to let Lucy know that two bodyguards would be travelling with the party, one of whom, Omar Farouk, would be housed on the top floor, while the second, Abu Bakr, would take the small bedroom opposite the ski room.
The clients must be people with serious connections, Lucy reasoned, hence the unusual level of security and her apprehension. She had to remind herself that she'd seen it all before. Each week head office sent her the same standard form detailing the needs and expectations of the new arrivals and she always felt a little anxious, wanting not just to meet expectations, but to exceed them.
But she had never felt as uneasy as this before, Lucy realised, checking each line again. The list was quite straightforward. Which should have been enough to stop the shivers running up and down her spine, but wasn't.
To calm her nerves she reasoned things through. This was one of the most expensive rental chalets in one of the most expensive ski resorts in the world. She was hardly a stranger to wealthy people, their needs, or the entourages that travelled with them. In fact, compared to most, this group appeared small and quite reasonable in their demands. Experience suggested a group of men would be mad keen to be on the slopes every daylight hour so she'd hardly see them, other than at mealtimes. Their main requirement would be lots of good food, plenty of hot water and clean towels and a never-ending supply of liquid refreshment when they got back to the chalet. With brothers of her own, it wasn't long before she was starting to feel a lot more confident.
They would almost certainly be public-school educated, Lucy mused, studying the names again. So one man preferred to remain anonymous—there could be any number of reasons why that should be and none of them her business.
Stroking back a wisp of honey-coloured hair, she realised it was the note scrawled in ink on the bottom of the page that set alarm bells ringing: 'If anyone can cope with this group, Lucy, we know, you can—' Translated loosely, that said she was less likely to make a fuss if the clients were more demanding and difficult than usual, because Lucy Tennant was not only a highly qualified cordon bleu chef, but a quiet girl, a good girl, a girl who took pride in her job managing the company's most prestigious chalet, someone who worked diligently without complaint. Her line manager knew this. So why did she get the feeling there was something he wasn't telling her?
She shook herself round. Time was moving on. With Fiona's social life making heavy demands on Fiona's working hours, there was always plenty of work at the chalet for Lucy. But the crystal-clear alpine light was streaming in, tempting her outside…
Pushing back the quaint, carved chair, she went to draw the cherry-red gingham curtains a little way across the ecru lace to stare out wistfully. It seemed such a shame to close out the perfect mountain day, but if she didn't she'd never get to work.
Work had always been enough for her—and working here, where she could almost taste the freedom of the mountains, the silence, the space, the intoxicating air.
And the loneliness…
Working here was fantastic, Lucy thought fiercely, blotting out the rest. A pang of loneliness was inevitable in a chic French town where everyone seemed to be part of a couple. She'd always known she would be on the outside looking in. It was a small price to pay to be part of so much energy and fun. Shy, plump and plain was never going to be a recipe for non-stop action in a community where glamorous, confident people revelled in using their bodies to the full—and not just for skiing. But she could cook for them and she could make a chalet cosy and welcoming, which had always been reward enough.
And one day my prince will come, Lucy mused wryly, fingering the tiny silver shoe she wore for luck around her neck—though whether he'd notice her amongst so many beautiful, sleek, toned bodies seemed highly unlikely.
The front door slammed and moments later she saw Fiona throwing her arms around the neck of her latest conquest.
Lucy pulled back from the window, knowing the snow scene and towering mountains with spears of brilliant light shooting through their jagged granite peaks were just a magical starting point. What she really valued was the good-natured camaraderie of her colleagues and the guests who gave her real purpose in life. Everything she lacked at home in the bosom of a relentlessly book-bound family living in the centre of a smoky, noisy city was here in this part-tamed wilderness of unimaginable icy splendour.
She loved books too, Lucy reflected, dipping down to look inside the fridge, but she liked to put what she read into practice, to experience things in reality. That was why she was here in a picturesque corner of an alpine village with a stream gurgling happily outside the pitched-roof wooden chalet, feeling reassured by the sight of the delicious local cheeses, along with the milk and cream she had sourced from the neighbouring farms. She still found it hard to believe that little Lucy, as her brothers still insisted on calling her, could negotiate the best of terms with local artisan producers, or that she held such a position of responsibility as a chalet chef for the ski season with the top company in Val d'Isere.
But she had paid her dues, Lucy remembered wryly, logging the items she would need to order for the week ahead before closing the door. She had come to France from a top restaurant in England where she had worked her way up from the bottom to the point where she received praise, as well as that all important reference, or lettre de recommendation, from Monsieur Roulet himself. Catering for demanding clients would never be easy, but she loved the challenge of the work as well as the opportunity it had given her to break free from her brothers' shadow.
Lucy's six brothers all excelled in areas her mother and father valued far more than cooking and it saddened Lucy to know she had never found a way to please her parents. Her self-respect had taken a real hit on the day her mother had alarmingly confided that they didn't know what to do with a girl—especially one who cooked. Her mother had said this as if a passion for cooking were somehow degrading for a woman, and when she had added in her airy, distracted way that it was better for Lucy to stay close to home and cook for her family where there was no chance of getting herself into trouble, Lucy had known it was time to leave.
Get herself into trouble? Some hope!
Lucy's wry smile returned. Her mother would no doubt applaud the irony that led men to treat Lucy as though she were their kid sister. At least she had escaped from other people's expectations of her, and thanks to her own endeavours, had the chance to discover who she was. She knew she wanted to make a difference in life and if that meant giving people pleasure with her cooking then she asked for nothing more.
Her breakout moment from home had been the first time in her life she'd done anything unexpected. She had been prepared to wash dishes for however long it took until she could persuade Monsieur Roulet to take her on, and had been amazed when the ferocious chef had granted her one of his sought-after training places, and even more surprised when her training had finished and he'd said she should see something of the world and that he would personally recommend her. Not wanting to disappoint the man who had launched her career, she had come up with an audacious plan to cater a dinner party for the director of one the world's most celebrated chalet companies. It was such a novel approach the woman had accepted and the rest was history. Lucy had returned home that night in triumph, and had sat patiently through the usual heated academic discussion taking place around a dinner table littered with dirty plates. Each time a break had come in the conversation she had tried to explain her exciting news, but her mother had hushed her and turned back to the boys, so Lucy's opportunity to share her happiness had never come. She still wasn't sure anyone had noticed her heaving her suitcase out of the house.
Enough reminiscing! She'd lose the job she loved if she didn't get moving! Fiona leaving early meant there were still beds to be made and floors to be swept and washed, but at least the food was ready. In fact, if it weren't for Mr One Other making her heart judder with apprehension she'd have a happy day ahead of her, doing all the things she liked best.
Razi scrunched the letter in his fist. It had been couriered to the helicopter taking him from Geneva to Val d'Isere and made him want to grab the old guard in Isla de Sinnebar by the collective throat and tell them, No way!
But that would mean cancelling this trip.
He barely noticed the sensational landscape of ice-capped peaks. Promised in marriage to a cousin he had never met? He realised his throne was the real prize—and not just the throne of Isla de Sinnebar. From his kingdom it was a short stride across the channel to the mainland and Ra'id's throne. But if anyone thought they could turn him against his brother—
His anger turned to cold fury as he ripped open the package that accompanied the letter. In his hand was a photograph. He studied the image of a beautiful young girl. She was his distant cousin Leila, apparently. Leila's long black hair was lush, but her eyes were sad. She was as beautiful as any girl he'd ever seen, but he felt nothing for her. It was like looking at a beautiful painting and registering the perfection of its composition without wanting to hang it on his wall.
'Poor Leila,' he murmured, feeling some sympathy for a girl who clearly understood she was being used as a bargaining counter by her unscrupulous relatives.
Wrapping up the picture in its silken cover, he stuffed it into the net at the side of his seat. He would not be trapped into marriage by parent, child, or a council of elders. When he married, it would be to a girl of his choice; a girl so cool, so keenly intelligent and effortlessly sophisticated, she would make a Hollywood movie star look clumsy.
Disaster! She'd spilled everything! Canapés littered the floor. The floor was awash with champagne. One man was mopping his jeans, while Mr One Other stared at her, frowning.
Even her training under the strictest of chefs could never have prepared her for her first encounter with the mysterious One Other. Tall, bronzed and serious about working out, he was a formidable force in the room and in the space of a condemning glance had reduced her to a dithering wreck.
Everything ruined in the blink of an eye. She would be sacked for this. Lucy's eyes welled with tears at the thought. She had planned so carefully, getting up at four to prepare the chalet and start cooking for the new guests.
She had left nothing to chance. There was a log fire blazing in the hearth, and fresh flowers she had arranged herself to bring the delicate fragrance of the French countryside into a chalet so clean you could eat the cordon bleu feast she had created off the lovingly polished oak floors. The menu she had devised encompassed every delicacy she could think of to tempt the palates of sophisticated men. Those men were currently lounging on the sofa, their faces registering varying degrees of surprise at her ineptitude, while the man in the shadows, the man who had compelled her attention from the moment she left the kitchen, gave off an impression of biting reproof. Her lovingly prepared tray of canapés was upturned in a puddle of vintage champagne and she had not only knocked the tray off the table when her gaze had locked with his, but had sprayed the designer jeans of a man whom, apart from the striking good looks he shared with his companions, she had barely noticed at all. Her attention had been wholly focused on the stranger staring at her now, and in holding that stare she had caught the toe of her shoe beneath the rug and had blundered forward.
How could a man standing in shade give off so much light? How could green eyes burn so fiercely? How could a man framed by four astonishingly good-looking friends eclipse them completely?
Breaking eye contact with him, she determinedly shook herself back to the task in hand. She had worked hard for this job and had no intention of losing it in the space of one compelling stare. 'My apologies, gentlemen—if you will allow me to, I will quickly repair the damage—'
Then He stepped forward, blotting out the light. 'Don't you think we should complete the introductions first?'