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|Publisher:||Wild Rose Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.72(d)|
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The security guard at Alpine Foods said they were not expecting Elaine Peterson for her internship in the Chocolate Department. Gripping her luggage, she crossed the lobby of the Alpine Foods corporate building.
The thub-thub-thub from her bag's broken wheel echoed off the wooden panels behind a mahogany reception desk. Well-heeled employees scurried past her, staring at her from the corners of their eyes as if she were dragging in a carcass.
Lainey held up her head, hoping the guard was mistaken. She'd spent the last four years at Stanford, beaten out two hundred other applicants, and flown twelve hundred miles across the Atlantic. At the receptionist's desk, she parked her luggage upright and threw her carry-on over the valise.
"Pourais-je vous aider, mademoiselle?" the male receptionist asked in yaw-yawing Swiss French, eying her over the top of the tall desk. "Can I help you?"
"Je ..." she began. She fumbled for the right words. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her carry-on slide. With a jerk, she caught the bag, but the jostle sent several chocolate wrappers to the ground. Without glancing up, she knew the receptionist thought she couldn't keep it together. Not a great first impression. She had to apologize. "Desolée."
Exasperated, she picked up the wrappers, stuffing them one by one into her pockets. The first chocolate bar she ate as a pre- boarding snack. The second she devoured when they delayed her first flight at Sky Harbor Airport. The third slipped down her gullet when she missed her connection at the Glasgow airport. And, of course, the fourth. The fourth she snarfed while she waited for the promised driver to pick her up at the airport in Geneva. When no one showed, she boarded the train to Vevey.
She thought she was only late. Now she was freaked out.
After picking up the wrappers, she faced the receptionist with the best smile she could manage after a nearly thirty-hour transit and very little sleep. He asked her again if she needed help. She understood, but it was as if a plastic bag was suffocating her brain. She deserved a fuzzy head after staying up late with Nadine the night before a six a.m. flight, rehashing every detail. What went wrong?
Her head throbbed, and she explained in halting French, "My name is Elaine Peterson. I'm here for an internship in the Chocolate Department with Madame Grocher." Her four years of university French broke through the fog. From her carry-on, she removed a folder. "I have correspondence from Marie Claire Remonter in Human Resources. It says right here, I was supposed to report this morning for orientation."
The receptionist arched his brow and clicked a few strokes on the keyboard, then faced her. "There must be some misunderstanding." His condescension sucked more wind from Lainey's deflated spirits. "Madame Grocher isn't expecting you. She isn't even in today."
"I will call Marie Claire." He directed her to the seating at his side. "Wait there, please."
Leaving her bag by the desk, she slinked to the high-backed black seats to stare out the glass walls at the lacy snow draping the Alps reflected in Lake Geneva. But even the beautiful scenery couldn't distract her for long.
Did Madame Grocher nix her position because she was late? You know Swiss punctuality — fifteen minutes early was five minutes late. Imagine being four hours late. No, no. She wasn't even in. Something else was amiss.
Maybe Lainey mixed up the dates. Europeans write day/month/year, not month/day/year like Americans. Or she misread the date when she made her flight plans. She breathed in, relieved.
She'd triple-checked the date. And besides, there was no twenty-sixth month.
What else could it be?
A woman entered the lobby from the paneled doors, clacking in impossibly high stiletto boots. "Elaine Peterson!"
So this was Marie Claire. Different than the glossy brochure they sent Lainey. She wore an exaggerated gypsy style rather than office casual. With a slight hand, she brushed a long, crimped strand of dark hair behind her triple-pierced ear. She would be able to straighten this out. "What are you doing here?" she asked in English.
Not a good sign.
Lainey's stomach dropped. She struggled to respond. Her throat was so dry, it was as if she'd eaten straight cocoa powder. "I'm supposed to report for my internship in the Chocolate Department today, right?"
Marie Claire responded in English.
"Desolée. Did they not you contact?" she asked, wide- eyed.
Lainey shook her throbbing head, unsure who "they" were.
"Oh, là, là." She faced the receptionist and spoke rapidly. Judging by the speed and accent of her French, Lainey guessed she wasn't Swiss. Probably French. Marie Claire gesticulated and glanced at Lainey. Dread grew in her stomach, leaving a foul taste across her unbrushed teeth.
Finally, Marie Claire broke from the receptionist to face Lainey. "There was a telephone call, the eighteenth?"
"The eighteenth? Last week." What was she doing the eighteenth? It was the day before Nadine threw her a going-away party.
Marie Claire consulted her notes. "We left a message with Nadine Hart."
"What?" Her best friend received a phone call canceling her internship and didn't tell her? Why?
Nadine was so not getting any souvenir chocolate.
"C'est dommage. Le département de chocolat cannot you take."
Marie Claire's bluntness quickened Lainey's heartbeat. Heat radiated from her face, her heartbeat pulsed into her head. Her brow lifted off her skull. Please, don't pass out, she silently prayed. She didn't want to know how hard the granite floor was. "Why not?"
"Bad economy, vous voyez," she said. "Their budget was cut dernièreminute. There is no money. You have to return home."
"But I've come so far." She couldn't return home, not when she was in the lobby. Not when she could almost smell the chocolate. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply, hoping to stop the train wreck inside her head. All she envisioned was the image of her beaming parents waving goodbye as she bustled through security. What would their expressions be if she returned home tomorrow? "What am I going to do?" she asked.
Marie Claire shrugged with a pained expression on her face.
Chocolate! Lainey needed chocolate!
Her tongue lolled in her mouth, craving a molten blob of chocolatey goodness to soothe her spirits and calm her heart, but the delayed flights depleted her choco-stash. There was nothing left — zilch, nada, rien du tout.
"Is there somewhere else I can work? Some other department? Some other job?" She would mop floors, empty trash cans, anything at Alpine Foods. She didn't say this aloud. It wasn't the best bargaining chip to appear too needy. Maybe she could wander the lobby with a sign around her neck, "Will work for chocolate." Her nose tingled. She sneezed. She always sneezed right before she cried. "Please. I'm willing to do anything."
Marie Claire handed her a scented tissue, biting her lip, her eyebrows peaked with sympathy. She patted Lainey's hand. "Wait. I see what I can do. Maybe one of the other departments can you take." She lifted the phone at the reception desk, dialed a number, and spoke in such rapid French Lainey couldn't keep up.
Lainey bit her lip. Cheer up, Lainey. Lots of things went wrong in foreign travel. At least she had her luggage. She hugged her carry-on to her chest. And she didn't die during the flight. A bit of turbulence maybe. Okay, she might've wet herself in the bathroom as the plane rocked. But over all, it was an uneventful trip across the Atlantic. And Marie Claire was going to see what she could do. There were many things to be grateful for.
Her tummy rumbled, reminding her for the umpteenth time she hadn't eaten much but chocolate in over twenty-four hours. And did she hear a whistling sound or were her ears ringing?
She swooped her shoulder-length hair behind her ear and rubbed her thighs. They were not rail thin. More rounded and well fed.
Marie Claire hung up, a huge grin on her face. "I sent your CV to Eve Claremont. Eve agrees to you give interview. Her English communication is trés bien ... better than mine."
Madame Claremont will interview her? A nervous shiver filled her horribly stressed body. Just then, the door opened again.
Out came a pencil-thin woman in a pencil-line skirt, with pencil- lined eyebrows. Behind her trailed a gorgeous man in a suit — if one could say a man was gorgeous — with dark, serious eyes and angular features. He consulted his phone. Lainey was glad he didn't glance at her. He was the type of guy who would make her blush if he caught her staring at him.
Just then, his gaze met hers, an intense, meaningful stare. Blushing, she ignored him giving her a once-over and focused instead on the woman. Legs shaking, gratitude swelling her heart, Lainey stood and held out her hand. "Thank you for taking the time to interview me, Madame Claremont."
The woman's too-big eyes widened in disdain. Lainey might wither right on the granite. Should she have said it in French, not English? Was it rude of her to greet someone in English in a foreign country?
The ringing in Lainey's ears grew louder. Voices sounded strangely far away. She was just about to repeat herself in French when the woman eyed the man behind her. In fact, everyone stared at him. Their gazes met. His eyes were even darker than her own chocolate brown, and his eyebrows raised in surprise.
"I am Yves Claremont," he said in English.
In French, "Yves" sounded like "Eve."
Heat flashed Lainey's face. The ringing in her ears increased into deafening numbness. M. Claremont's gorgeous features disappeared into darkness.
When the blackness faded, she was lying on the cold granite floor. She had a great view of it. Very clean. And, as predicted, hard.
Someone held her hand, and everyone was speaking French. Throbbing pain nearly overtook her when she tilted her head toward Marie Claire, who patted Lainey's fingers.
Her long, crimped hair tickled Lainey, her flowing shirt draped across her midsection. Up this close, a tiny hole was visible in Marie Claire's thin nose. "Oh, ma pauvre," she said. "Ça va?"
"I'm sorry." Lainey's voice shook. "I haven't really eaten much. I must've passed out."
And Yves, uh, it sounded like a girl's name, no, Monsieur Claremont — she would only call him Monsieur Claremont — was on the phone, his jaw flexing, his dark eyebrows gathered.
She laid her head back down on the granite.
At her side, M. Claremont knelt. The scent of his cologne weakened her. In a good way.
"I am so sorry." She stared up into his concerned face. "Marie Claire used the feminine pronoun 'her' before 'communication' in English. I thought she was referring to a woman." She chuckled uncomfortably.
His heavily-lashed eyes were penetrating, dark, and serious. He leaned in and whispered to Lainey, his voice low and soft. "I am very much a man." A hint of intensity flashed in his eyes. But then it fled, and he was as cold and clipped as ice chips. "Sabine will bring you something to eat while we talk," he said louder in English. He placed his hand under her shoulder to help her up. His gentle yet firm touch sent electricity through her body. "You must be famished." His clipped French accent was incredibly sexy.
She stopped herself. He might be her new boss.
The sugar and caffeine had finally run out. She nodded feebly.
M. Claremont directed her to the chair near the wall of windows. "Wait here." He crossed the lobby to direct Sabine in French.
He was not overly tall or short. About six feet, she would guess. But lean. He moved with the grace of one who purposefully, consistently worked out. And, Lainey guessed, paid for an expensive barber, judging from the perfect way his dark hair settled in the back.
He returned, arranging a chair across from her, occupied with something on his phone. "We'll wait until you've eaten."
His English was hot chocolate to her soul. His voice soothed her and warmed her inside. Within a few moments, Sabine entered the paneled doors with a tray and set it in an empty chair near her with an unmistakable cold stare in Lainey's direction.
Wait, a tray?
Apparently, the Swiss did not go half-measures on anything. On this tray sat two buttery croissants, sliced pears and peaches in a ceramic cup, a sandwich of thin-sliced ham and cheese on a crusty chunk of French bread, and two silver-blue wrapped pieces of chocolate, all over a lace doily — a four-star spread.
Shaking loose the real fork, spoon, and butter knife, she spread the cloth napkin on her lap. After sugary slurps of fruit, she started on the sandwich. While chewing, she peeked at M. Claremont. He glanced up from his phone. His eyes slid purposefully to hers. His eyebrows peaked at just the right moment, asking if she was okay.
She returned with a half-smile.
The sandwich. She was thinking about the sandwich.
Another bite. Was it hot?
He held out his phone, exposing a designer watch encircling his wrist. "Now you've eaten a little, we can start. I have reviewed your CV. I am ready to see what you can do for our department." He broke to glance at his phone. "You earned an English degree at Stanford. French minor. You worked full-time to support yourself at university. Tell me about Homemade Meals."
She swiped her mouth to stall, folding the napkin across her lap once more. When she glanced up, his gaze penetrated hers, interested and attentive. For a heart-stopping moment, she was calm. What she learned from Homemade Meals wasn't something easily explained on a CV. It needed to be shared.
She cleared her throat to eject the rising tremors. "Homemade Meals is a non-profit specializing in bringing healthy meals to housebound elderly people in the Bay Area."
He raised an eyebrow. "And how did those experiences prepare you for this internship?"
Her throat strangled her breath. Everything was riding on this. She struggled to tailor her responses without knowing which department she was applying to. She decided to keep it honest and general. "The awesome people at Homemade Meals helped me realize food is a meaningful way of communicating care. Nourishing not just the body but the soul. I learned baking brings me joy, and this was a way to share my talents."
M. Claremont smiled curtly then glanced down at his phone again for reference. "Ah, yes. I'm sure it's a lovely story, and no doubt you've told it many times." He lifted his gaze to challenge hers. "And the people you served, can you tell me something about them? Something aside from being elderly."
The edge in his voice expressed doubt in her sincerity. He thought she'd padded her resume for appearances. But this was a question she had no trouble answering.
She sat up straighter. His eyes widened at her confidence. Good. She enjoyed surprising people. "First on my route was Lavina. She enjoyed my chocolate cream puffs almost as much as an Oakland A's game. Her son played baseball years ago in high school, and it was all she ever talked about. Then Susan, crushed on some soap opera star from the eighties. Nobody I knew. But after searching for the reruns online, we discovered they weren't available anywhere. She loved my hazelnut-chocolate cookies- and-cream sandwich cookies. Dipped them in cola." Lainey wrinkled her nose. "And Esther still crochets. Ninety years old and still crocheting. Made me a scarf and mittens despite her partial blindness. Said she crocheted by touch. She ate three helpings of my chocolate chocolate-chip bread because she said she wanted to die happy. Should I continue?"
"No, thank you." He almost smiled, but cut it short. "You were scheduled for the Department of Chocolate. Tell me why?"
"My uncle traveled to Switzerland and, for my ninth birthday, brought me back an Alpine Foods Extra Milk chocolate bar, the most delicious thing I had ever tasted." She didn't mention her parents' rocky marriage while her dad's business tanked, or her tweenage strife. Chocolate continued to act as a warm, fuzzy comfort blanket. "I want to bring joy to many people."
"I see." His expression changed to almost a scowl. "If I am pleased with your work, I'll give you a recommendation for a full- time position to Madame Grocher."
"So, you'll take me?"
He stood and returned his chair, his eyes never leaving hers. "I think you are just what we are looking for."
Marie Claire, who had waited at the desk, crossed to them. She asked something in rapid French.
He switched over to French flawlessly when he consulted with her. Thankfully, the food regulated her blood sugar, and his French became more clear. "Yes, we'd love to have her in our department. Now if you will make the arrangements."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Swiss Mishap"
Copyright © 2019 Amey Zeigler.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
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