THE RESTAURANT KITCHEN was hot, but sous-chef Melanie Marchand was hotter.
Thick seafood gumbo simmered on a back burner of the stove. The spicy scent of sweet paprika, cayenne pepper, garlic and onions permeated the air. Dozens of potatoes baked in a five hundred degree oven, while in the convection toaster, fat loaves of French bread turned a buttery golden brown. Chez Remy was in full swing as Mardi Gras season heated up.
Overhead, the ceiling fan was on the fritz, spinning lazily for a few minutes, then abruptly cutting out. Tendrils of dark hair escaped from Melanie’s ponytail and perspiration plastered them against the nape of her neck. She pressed the back of one hand to her damp forehead in a useless attempt to stay her irritation. She’d just glanced up at the daily menu posted on the dry-erase board by executive chef Robert LeSoeur, and noticed that the innovative dish she’d scribbled down the night before had been slashed through with a bright red Magic Marker.
Grrr. She gritted her teeth.
Without even a simple FYI, he’d axed her new specialty dish from the carte du jour, making her feel overlooked and insignificant. The way she’d often felt growing up as the youngest of four sisters. Charlotte was the smart one, Renee the pretty one, Sylvie the funny one. Melanie had just been the baby.
Her cooking skills were the only way she’d been able to distinguish herself. Purposefully, Melanie squared her shoulders, strode to the stainless steel commercial refrigerator and, with her biceps straining, dragged out the forty-pound turkey.
She was making the dish whether Robert liked it or not. He couldn’t fire her. Her family owned Chez Remy, the elegant restaurant housed inside the Hotel Marchand, a four-star establishment tucked away on one of the original blocks of the French Quarter.
Ignoring the round-eyed stares of the other cooks, she hauled the turkey over to the prep area. After removing the giblets, she lubed it up with extra virgin olive oil.
The cooks kept glancing from Melanie to the crossed-out menu item posted near the stove, and back again. They recognized mutiny in the offing, but had the good sense not to comment on it. Although Jean-Paul Beaudreau, who had worked for her family since she was a small child, grinned and murmured something in his native Cajun dialect about the sexy appeal of a tempestuous woman.
She wasn’t tempestuous. She just wanted her voice to be heard. Either LeSoeur simply enjoyed provoking her or the stubborn man needed to be fitted with a high-powered hearing aid. She picked up the oversize bird, now prepped for cooking, and marched it over to the rotisserie.
“It’s too big.” Robert’s voice was a cool caress against her heated ears.
Melanie started, but did not look up at her nemesis because her insides had turned to mush.
Mentally, she steeled herself against the unwanted sensation of sexual attraction by not missing a beat. She kept right on trying to jam the bird into the oven as if Mr. Hot Body himself was not hovering behind her.
“Did you hear what I said?”
A bead of perspiration trickled down her throat. She wasn’t about to concede that he was right. Melanie kept working it like Cinderella’s ugly stepsister trying to stuff her big fat foot into that delicate glass slipper.
I will make this fit. I can’t let him win.
Okay, she was competitive. So shoot her.
“If you’re determined to do this, then at least let me help so you don’t end up hurting yourself,” Robert said softly, and stepped dangerously close.
Who did he think he was fooling? He didn’t want to help. He wanted to take over. He thrived on control. She could easily imagine him in the armed forces—a general barking out orders to his troops.
Melanie hardened her jaw. She would not allow this guy to steamroll her.
“Buzz off,” she said flatly.
He came up behind her and slid his big arms around either side of her waist, grabbing hold of the slick bird she held positioned in front of her. Suddenly, she was having a lot of trouble breathing normally, and she could not blame it on the heat.
Robert was touching her, and the fact that he was touching her turned her on, and that scared the hell out of her.
His warm breath tickled the nape of her neck, his chest grazed her back and his arms rubbed against hers as they struggled together to insert the turkey into the rotisserie.
There was decidedly too much friction going on here.
“Admit defeat gracefully, Marchand,” he said after a few minutes of concentrated effort. “It’s not going to fit.”
“Stop being such a pessimist, and try wriggling it around a bit,” she instructed.
“I told you, it’s too big,” he gloated.
“What’s that? I don’t get an admission that you’re wrong and I’m right?”
She could hear the humor in his voice. Was he flirting with her? Or making fun of her?
Underneath his white starched apron, with the maroon Chez Remy stitching across the front, he wore a tight, black cotton T-shirt, black denim jeans and black leather boots. Crocodile, she surmised. Or maybe alligator. Expensive either way. What a shame he could afford better shoes than she could. How much was her mother paying him, anyway?
Not that she was much of a shoe diva, as anyone might have deduced from the scuffed Nikes she wore when she wasn’t in her kitchen clogs. She didn’t even own a pair of stilettos. She preferred footwear that allowed freedom of movement. She liked to stay fluid, on the go, prepared in case an impromptu adventure broke out. Besides, at five foot nine, she was tall enough that she had no need for high heels.
Weird about Robert, though. In every way except for his footwear, he followed the status quo. Not a rocker of boats, LeSoeur. But those boots whispered, I do have a wild side even though you can’t see it. That’s what intrigued her most about him. This undercurrent, this hidden part of the iceberg.
She cast him a sidelong glance.
Robert caught her looking at him and the right corner of his mouth quirked upward slightly. He was drop-dead gorgeous when he smiled. His posture was cocksure, reflecting the flawless arrogance of a man accustomed to being in charge.
Her knees wobbled.
Benedict Arnold knees.
His smile deepened, showing off a pair of devilish dimples.
Jeez, she was such a fool for dimples. Loved them, in fact.
Melanie jerked her eyes downward and nipped her bottom lip between her teeth in an attempt to focus her attention on the poultry skewering, but the ploy didn’t work.
Robert was right. Damn him.
The turkey was much too large for the rotisserie, but she wasn’t about to admit she’d been wrong. She would slice off the bird’s legs if she had to. One way or another, she was determined to make it fit, because silly as it might sound, she felt as if her entire sense of self hinged on it.
The Hotel Marchand had been faltering ever since Hurricane Katrina, but lately, just as they were getting back on their feet, a series of odd occurrences had been chipping away at their once impeccable reputation. Melanie believed that if she created unique and delicious dishes, people would flock to Chez Remy, boosting the hotel’s bottom line. If she could bring in more customers, she would finally feel like an integral part of her family.
But what if you’re wrong? What if your passionate creations don’t save the day?
What if you’re always incidental? Lately those doubts had been growing, gnawing at her the way they always did when she’d been in one place too long.
But this is home. You’re supposed to be here.
Yeah? So why did she feel so out of step?
Swallowing hard, Melanie slammed the mental door on her demons. This would work if LeSoeur would just kindly move his hunky bod out of her way.
“How long are you going to monkey with that turkey before you admit defeat?” he asked.
“Hush up, Mr. Negativity.” Grimly she pounded on the turkey’s behind with the flat of her palm. “That’s the difference between you and me, LeSoeur. I’m a positive thinker.”
“You believe that’s the biggest difference between us?”
“No, the biggest difference between us is that you’re a stick-in-the-mud and I’m an innovator.”
“I thought the biggest difference was that you’re a hard-headed prima donna who’s used to getting her own way and I’m—”
“And you’re the guy who’s here to put me in my place.” She finished his sentence. “Is that it?”
“Melanie,” he said. “Your mother and sister hired me as executive chef for a reason. Get used to it. I’m making an executive decision. Chocolate turkey is off the menu.”
Defiantly, she lifted her chin. His eyes sparked darkly, letting Melanie know he meant business. The elastic band around her ponytail felt unnaturally tight and her throat was so dry she couldn’t swallow. His self-control infuriated her as much as it pointed out her own lack of it.
At two o’clock in the afternoon the kitchen was gearing up for the restaurant’s evening opener at five. The three prep cooks were industriously peeling, chopping, slicing and dicing, but they weren’t too busy to cast surreptitious glances their way.
Melanie settled the turkey on a Lucite cutting board and wiped her hands against her apron before dropping them onto her hips. From the minute her oldest sister, Charlotte, general manager of the Hotel Marchand, had introduced them to each other four months earlier, Melanie and Robert had been assessing each other’s jugular.
Her instant dislike of the man had as much to do with his bossiness—he reminded her far too much of her ex-husband, David—as it did with the fact she found his good looks heart-stoppingly devastating. How was it that she could be so attracted to someone who rubbed her the wrong way on five hundred different levels?
And then there was the not-so-small matter that her mother and Charlotte should have offered the executive chef position to her, rather than bringing in a total stranger.
There was that insignificant feeling again, as if she was nothing but an afterthought. The tag end of the family.
She firmly believed her father, Remy, would have wanted her to have the job if he had still been alive. It was almost four years to the day since he had been killed by a drunk driver in a car crash on Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. An accident that still haunted her because she felt responsible.
Melanie knew her guilt wasn’t logical or rational, and she understood that no one in the family blamed her. But she blamed herself. She couldn’t help thinking that if she hadn’t gotten divorced, hadn’t gone through a vicious bout of self-doubt and depression, that her mother, Anne, wouldn’t have whisked her away on a two-week vacation to Tuscany to cheer her up during the hotel’s busiest time of year.
And if they hadn’t been in Italy, Anne would have been home, and her husband would never have gone out into the storm that horrible, horrible night. Somewhere in the back of her mind, Melanie honestly believed that if she hadn’t been an impulsive wild child, disobeying her parents’ wishes and marrying David on the spur of the moment and then sorrowfully living to regret it, her father would not have died.
A wave of pain, as gut-wrenching, as when she’d first heard the awful news, washed over her.
Melanie had stayed longer in Tuscany to finish her cooking courses, but, homesick for her husband, Anne had decided to return early. Even now, Melanie could still remember, with perfect clarity, the moment her world had changed forever.
She had been cooking chicken marsala in the quaint, two-hundred-year-old kitchen at Casa Francesco when the call had come through on her cell. Pulling the phone from her apron, she’d spied her oldest sister’s number on the caller ID, and was in the middle of making a flippant joke when Charlotte had quietly told her their father was dead.
Melanie had let out a small, keening cry of despair, and the bottle of marsala wine she’d been clutching in her other hand slipped from her fingers, crashing to the cool clay tiles, staining her legs with the ruddy, prune-scented liquid.
She had always been a daddy’s girl and far more comfortable here in the working-class world of Remy’s kitchen, than in the rest of the hotel, which bore the distinctive markings of her mother’s privileged upbringing. Melanie’s father had spoiled her something rotten, and she missed him desperately.
Wherever her gaze landed, she saw him.
In the saucepans, bottoms charred black from use. In the stainless steel backsplash they’d installed together behind the stoves, Melanie holding up the metal while her father glued it into place. In the cookbooks stacked on shelves in the corner, their pages yellowed and dog-eared. In the chef knives, gleaming and sharp, that she’d bought him for Christmas the year before he’d died.
Melanie blinked and found she was still staring into Robert LeSoeur’s piercing blue eyes. Suddenly, he became the personification of her pain.
And she hated him for it, this tightly muscled, broad-shouldered interloper.
How could her mother and Charlotte have hired a laconic Northwesterner to run her passionate father’s kitchen? The betrayal tasted as sharp and raw as undistilled cider vinegar.
She would have already packed her bags and shuffled right on back to Boston if her other two sisters, Sylvie and Renee, hadn’t begged her to stay. Plus, how could she hold a grudge against her mother? Anne’s recent heart attack was the reason Melanie had returned to New Orleans again. Even though the myocardial infarction had been mild and Anne insisted she felt better than ever now, Melanie could not bear the thought of losing another parent.
So she’d sucked up her resentment and decided to play nice with Robert, but the turkey was the last straw. Whenever she made any suggestions for trying something new or innovative, he invariably shot her down with his rational, logical, well-thought-out opinions.
“I repeat, Melanie, I’m in charge. This is my kitchen. We’re frying the turkey Cajun style. End of discussion.”
She didn’t flinch from his assessing gaze. “Everything on the frickin’ menu is Cajun or Creole.”
His eyes traveled a deliberate journey from her disheveled hair down her face to her lips, along her throat to the gentle swell of her breasts. “Hello, this is New Orleans, not Boston.”
“But why does everything have to be so predictable?” she complained. “Same old gumbo and étouffée. I have rémoulade coming out of my pores.”
“There’s nothing wrong with tradition,” he said. “People find it soothing.”
“Yeah, if you don’t mind stagnating. What are the more adventuresome souls supposed to eat?”
“Few people are as adventuresome as you.” Was that a hint of admiration in his voice? Perhaps he did appreciate her love of innovation more than he let on. “And for what it’s worth, I have introduced more grilled dishes since I’ve been here.”
Melanie snorted. “Grilled grouper, whoop-dee-doo. That’ll get you on the cover of Gourmand.”
“This isn’t about making the cover of some slick foodie magazine. It’s about pleasing our customers. Besides, roast turkey is not exactly cutting edge.”
“It is when you baste it with chocolate and cayenne, then top it with a goat cheese and caper sauce.” She gestured expressively. “Don’t make that face, it tastes really good.”
“You’ve made it before?”
“It came to me in a dream. I have very vivid dreams.”
“We can’t be switching the menu around to suit your midnight culinary inventions. The dish sounds dysfunctional. No one will order it.”
“Trust me—it’s wonderful.” Melanie turned resolutely back to the turkey. She grasped the bird under both wings and lugged it back to the rotisserie to try again.
Robert moved to block her way. “Sorry, but no. It’ll fry in less than half the time.”
The kitchen had gone completely silent. The trio of prep cooks were no longer slicing and dicing, but staring open-mouthed, waiting with knives poised to see what was going to happen next.
Melanie couldn’t say why getting her way on this issue was so important, but the need was an aching heaviness in her heart. Maybe because the anniversary of her father’s death was just around the corner. Maybe because her own family didn’t have enough faith in her to give her the executive chef position. Not that she even wanted the job, but it would have been nice of them to have asked. It would have made her feel wanted, at least.
Or maybe it was because no matter how much she disliked Robert, she was powerfully attracted to him and feared she would end up sleeping with the guy and making a huge mess of her life again if she didn’t watch her step.
Melanie dodged around him and manipulated the turkey’s shoulders into the rotisserie. If she just pushed hard enough, she could make it happen.
“You’re going to hurt yourself,” Robert said, and reached for one of the legs.
“Back off,” she barked, surprised by the anxiety knotting her stomach.
“You’re upset about something more than the turkey. Let’s go into my office and talk this through.”
The last place she wanted to be was confined in his tiny office. She didn’t trust herself to be alone with him. How pathetic was that?
Robert tried to wrench the turkey from her grasp, but Melanie clung to it as if her life depended on it being roasted in chocolate and hot peppers instead of injected with Cajun seasoning and fried in peanut oil. In the process, her elbow hit the jar of olive oil, tipping it over. Apparently, she hadn’t replaced the lid tightly enough. Oil drizzled down the counter and trickled across the floor.
“Let go,” she said.
“Not until you tell me what’s really upsetting you.”
Melanie glared. She wasn’t about to tell him that what was really bothering her was this infernal attraction to him. She pulled away sharply, but still he held on to the turkey.
Her kitchen clogs skidded in the slippery oil. Her legs shot out from under her and she landed hard on her bottom, the turkey flying from her hands and Robert’s.
It smacked against something in the distance with a solid, wet thunk.
Robert let out a curse as momentum shot him forward and he, too, slipped in the olive oil, lost his balance and came crashing down.
Just in the nick of time he thrust out his arms and caught himself before crushing Melanie beneath him.
He ended up positioned directly above her as if he were doing push-ups, her legs pinned beneath his.
He gazed down at her with those deep, ocean-colored eyes. Her chest heaved beneath the thin cotton material of her turquoise tank top.
She was trapped.
And totally not hating it.
In fact, Melanie was holding her breath, waiting for him to kiss her.
His hands rested on either side of her body, his forearms almost grazing the swell of her breasts, his pelvis poised just inches above hers.
She realized that somehow his fingers had gotten tangled in her ponytail, and he was looking at her as if she were a Mardi Gras feast.
She gulped and commanded herself not to blush.
Her body tingled, sparking off the hot expression in his eyes. Her stomach tumbled in a free fall. The way he looked at her was foreplay of the most provocative kind.
Hot and lingering. Anticipatory and edgy.
Her heart raced like a high-performance Ferrari engine. She tipped her hips forward.
They breathed deeply together, watching, waiting.
For the first time, she noticed he had a faint scar that started just above his right ear and disappeared into his hairline. It was straight and clean, as if it had been made by a razor or a knife in one long slicing motion.
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