THE HEART OF PARIS
Welcome to La Maison des Sorcieres. Where the window display is an enchanted forest of sweets, a collection of conical hats delights the eye and the habitués nibble chocolate witches from fanciful mismatched china. While in their tiny blue kitchen, Magalie Chaudron and her two aunts stir wishes into bubbling pots of heavenly chocolat chaud.
But no amount of wishing will rid them of interloper Philippe Lyonnais, who has the gall to open one of his world famous pastry shops right down the street. Philippe’s creations seem to hold a magic of their own, drawing crowds of beautiful women to their little isle amidst the Seine, and tempting even Magalie to venture out of her ivory tower and take a chance, a taste … a kiss.
Parisian princesses, chocolate witches, patissier princes and sweet wishes—an enchanting tale of amour et chocolat.
Reviewers Choice Book of the Year nominee!
Winner of the Romantic Times Seal of Excellence.
Dear Author Recommended Read and a Best Book of 2013
Smart B*’s Sizzling Book Club Pick and a Best Book of 2013 for Kindle Love Stories
A Romance Novels for Feminists Best Book of 2012
It was a good day for princesses. The rain drove them indoors, an amused little rain with long, cool fingers that heralded the winter to come and made people fear the drafts in their castles.
And Magalie Chaudron, stirring chocolate in the tea shop’s blue kitchen, felt smug to be tucked into the heart and soul of all this warmth, not wandering the wet streets searching for a home.
Aunt Aja smiled at her in that quiet way of hers, her long black braid swaying hypnotically against the gold-brown silk of her salwar kameez tunic as she prepared a pot of tea. Aunt Geneviève had taken her giant umbrella and gone out for a stride, just to prove that rain couldn’t confine her, no matter what it might do to anyone else. That was fortunate, because whenever Aunt Geneviève started feeling confined, the kitchen shrank to the size of a pin, and its other occupants weren’t angelic enough to dance around each other atop it.
In the tiny salon de thé on the Île Saint-Louis, their first “princess” of the day, a businesswoman with straight, light brown hair, sat under some of the conical hats that filled three high, rickety wooden shelves wrapping around the entire room. Above the businesswoman’s head sat a jester’s cap, a stack of three shiny black and gold paper party crowns from New Year’s 2000, and an Eiffel Tower–shaped hat that had shown up in a box in the mail one day with a note from a customer: When I saw this, I could not resist sending it to you. Thank you for your beautiful haven. It brought me more pleasure than you can know.
“Thanks,” the brown-haired woman was saying to the business-suited man across from her when Magalie carried a tray out to Madame Fernand, whose poodle was, for a rarity, actually curled up on the elegant old woman’s feet and licking up crumbs rather than trying to lunge at everyone else’s table. Before going out, Geneviève had sprinkled crumbs generously under that table the moment she’d spotted Madame Fernand approaching the shop. The eighty-year-old grande dame had been bringing a dog everywhere she went for decades, starting back when she could still cling to physical proof of her days as a reigning beauty and train her dogs to behave. “This is perfect,” the brown-haired woman said. She had a heavy American accent but was speaking in French. “Exactly what I needed.”
“I thought you would like it,” the man said with a smile. He was old enough to be her father, with a gold wedding ring so heavy and thick, Magalie was surprised he could stand to wear it. “It makes a nice break from meetings, doesn’t it? Although I’m afraid they don’t use your chocolate, Cade.”
“No one in France uses our chocolate,” Cade said ruefully. “That’s the problem. But this . . .” She sighed and rubbed the back of her neck and then smiled. “If I ever run away to join the circus, this will be the circus I join.”
Circus? This utterly stable center of the world? Magalie gave the woman called Cade a cool look as she served Madame Fernand. The wood-and-enamel tray held a generous portion of Aunt Aja’s tea in a beautiful cast-iron teapot; a delicate, ancient, flowered cup with a tiny chip in the base; and a slice of rose chess pie, one of Magalie’s contributions to the salon de thé’s recipes, the chess pie recipe inherited from her father’s mother, the rose inspired one day by Madame Fernand’s perfume.
“In a manner of speaking,” the businesswoman-circus-dreamer said. While they nicknamed most of their female clients princesses, meaning women who indulged themselves with problems they didn’t know how to fix, Magalie was kind of surprised at this one. The other woman felt strong. “Can you imagine? Making exquisite chocolate by hand instead of huge machines—all that mystery and magic? You would feel like a sorcerer. No wonder the owners call this shop The Witches’ House. It must be wonderful to enchant people all the time.”
The businessman across from her was giving her a blank look. The woman—Cade—realized it and straightened, smiling ruefully, and her dream sank right back down inside her, hidden under a professional, assertive calm.
Magalie gave her a disgusted look. What was the use of being assertive if you were asserting yourself over yourself? In the kitchen, she gave her pot of chocolate a firm glare, and—even though she knew she was being silly and that it couldn’t really work magic on people, no matter what the aunts liked to pretend—she wished some gumption into the other woman, as she stirred the pot three times with the ladle: May you realize your own freedom.
Then she whisked up a separate cup for the businessman, because the last thing someone wearing that big a wedding band needed was to “realize his own freedom” while sitting across from a woman young enough to be his daughter.
“Give her this, too.” Aunt Aja set a pot of tea on the tray as Magalie started to leave the kitchen again with it. The scent from this tea was spicier than Madame Fernand’s rose and lavender, more adventurous. “Some nuts are harder to crack than others.”
The brown-haired businesswoman’s eyes took on a startled brightness as she breathed in the scents of the chocolate and tea slid before her. She reached out and touched the chocolate cup—hers was thick, handle-less, with a black-on-sienna African motif—tracing her finger along the rim.
The silver bell over the door chimed with such loveliness that Magalie gave it a startled glance. Maybe the rain had put it into a good mood. The two women who walked in with the chime had to be mother and daughter, the younger woman lithe, as if she was constantly in motion—dance, maybe? Her gold hair was caught up in a careless clip like that of a dancer between practices. Her mother was much stouter, her makeup too afraid of imperfection, her haircut the professionally maternal one of a woman who has long since decided to live only for her daughter.
“Oh, look at this, honey,” she said, in American. “Isn’t this the cutest place you ever saw?” Magalie was going to give her a cup of chocolate that taught her a sense of aesthetics. The place was not cute. “Can you believe how much of the world you’re seeing?”
Her daughter flexed her hands, massaging between the tendons. “Mmm,” she said. She looked tired. But her gaze traveled around the shop, curiosity and a kind of hunger waking slowly in her eyes. It was a look that Magalie, after working in this shop all through university and full-time for the three years since, had seen more times than she could count. “I wouldn’t mind seeing more of it, Mom.”
“Well, we will. My goodness, honey, you’re touring New Zealand and Australia next month. With a stop in Honolulu! Should we take that engagement in Japan? It’s good timing for the way back. Would you like that? We haven’t been there since you were sixteen, have we?”
“I went with a group from school for a performance while I was at Julliard,” her daughter reminded her.
“Oh, that’s right. Your father had his operation, and I couldn’t come.”
The two women slid into seats at one of the tables in the tiny front room, tucked between the old upright piano and the window display: a dark-chocolate house in the middle of a menacing forest of enormous, rough-hewn, dark-chocolate trees, the house so covered with candied violets and candied mint leaves and candied oranges, it was almost impossible not to reach out to break off just a little bite. The daughter gazed at it but folded her hands, still rubbing her fingertips into her tendons.
If a few more princesses had spines, it would do them a world of good, Magalie thought with a huff of irritation, and back in the kitchen she shook her head at her chocolate as she stirred it: May you love your life and seize it with both hands.
Aunt Aja took that tray out, and just as she left the kitchen, the silver bell over the front door rang with a chime so sharp and true that it pierced Magalie straight through the heart. She clapped her hands over her ears to try to stop the clarion sound, the ladle clattering across the counter, splattering chocolate.
But the tone kept vibrating inside her body, until she stamped her boots twice and slapped the counter to force it to stop.
A warm voice, not loud but so rich with life that it filled the entire shop, wrapped itself around Magalie and held her, making her strain with startled indignation against the urge to shiver in delight. “What a wonderful place,” the golden voice alive with laughter was saying to Aunt Aja. “La Maison des Sorcières. The Witches’ House. Do you ensorcell all your passersby, or do you enchant strictly children?”
Magalie tilted her body back just enough to peek past the edge of the little arched doorway that led into the kitchen. Through the second arch, the one that separated the tiny back room from the equally tiny front part of the shop, she got a glimpse of broad shoulders and tawny hair, a sense of size so great that a sudden dread seized her. If he should shrug his shoulders, the whole shop might burst off them, like staves bursting off a barrel.
But he was in perfect control of that size. Nothing around him was in any danger, not even the chocolate spindle hanging over the display case specifically to be such a danger and poke people in the forehead if they leaned too close.
Now there was someone who didn’t need her help. She smiled at the ladle as she picked it up. What could she wish for a man so full of life and power? May all your most wonderful dreams come true.
The silver bell chimed again, dramatically. Aunt Geneviève came back in, taking a moment to shake her umbrella energetically at the street before it could bring in rain. Now two people of enormous character filled the shop, and for a second Magalie felt like a marshmallow that had just been sat on by an elephant.
“No, I’m sorry, nothing for me,” the warm voice told the aunts. “I just had to peek in. Next time I’m here”—he laughed, and Magalie broke down at last and shivered extravagantly with pleasure—“I promise I’ll stay and let you bewitch me.”
The silver bell chimed again, glumly this time.
Magalie left the kitchen, hurrying to the archway into the front room. Through looming chocolate trees, she met vivid blue eyes looking back into the shop. While she looked straight into them, he likely could not see her, hidden as she was by the angle of the light. Raindrops fell on his head, and he shook himself like a lion shaking out its mane, saying something to the man in a business suit beside him. Then he strode on.
Aunt Geneviève raised her eyebrows, caftan sweeping out around her six-foot frame to dominate even more of the space as she turned to look after him with some interest.
Magalie retreated to the kitchen, her whole body relaxing in relief. She didn’t know what had almost happened there, but thank God it hadn’t. Absently, she picked up the cup of chocolate she’d been preparing for the lion of a man, cradling it in her hands as she drank from it.
Its warmth sank into her. “You know, I should have lent him an umbrella,” she murmured vaguely. Some of the umbrellas princesses forgot to take with them when they left were very fine indeed.
“If you hand that man something, it had better be a gift, because if he likes it, he’s not going to give it back,” Aunt Geneviève said, propping her black umbrella against the kitchen’s arch. Even folded, it came up to Magalie’s shoulder. Geneviève was Magalie’s blood relation in the aunts’ couple—her mother’s sister—but no one would be able to tell it by their sizes. “Anyway, it does big cats like him good to get wet from time to time,” Geneviève muttered.
Magalie was enchanting children with morsels of her dark-chocolate house two weeks later when the bearer of bad news burst in.
In this case, it was the toy seller from the quixotic shop four doors down. “Have you heard who’s coming to the island?” Claire-Lucy gasped.
Magalie retained her calm, continuing to break off house pieces to pass around to the children. Even if Superman himself was stopping by to sign autographs, the island in the heart of Paris and Magalie’s place in it would stay the same. And that was what mattered.
The aunts claimed a share of the credit for the chocolate house, but Magalie was the one who had designed September’s display. It was pure dark chocolate, of course. They didn’t really do milk chocolate at La Maison des Sorcières. But Magalie had fitted out the window frames with long strips of candied lime peel, and the roof was thatched with candied orange peel. Up the walls of it, she had twined such delicacies as flowering vines made from crystallized mint leaves and violet petals, both personally candied by Aunt Aja, a delicate, tricky business that involved the brushing of egg whites and sugar onto hundreds and hundreds of mint leaves and fragile violet petals with a tiny paintbrush. Over and over. Only Aunt Aja could do it. Geneviève and Magalie soon started throwing things.
Feeding these works of deliciousness to impressionable young children was one of Magalie’s favorite moments of each month. Aunt Aja had confessed that the first few times she and Geneviève had concocted elaborate window displays such as this one, they had been young and refused to destroy their work, leaving it to time itself to decay it with the pale brown bloom on the chocolate. At which point, it was no longer even remotely as delicious as it once could have been. The lesson, according to Aunt Aja, was one of recognizing transience. But Magalie hated transience, so she put it into other terms: one must always know when to yield magic into the hands of the children who wanted to eat it up.
So they made their displays fresh every few weeks, and from all over the Île Saint-Louis and the further hinterlands of Paris, children showed up on the first Wednesday of every month—Wednesday was the day children got off school early—dragging parents or nannies by the hand, to eat the witches’ candy.
In front of September’s witch house, lost in a forest of dark-chocolate tree trunks, a tiny black hen pecked in a little garden. The black hen had been formed in one of Aunt Geneviève’s extensive collection of heavy, nineteenth-century molds, gleaned from a lifetime of dedicated flea-marketing. Deep among the chocolate tree trunks was also a chocolate rider on a white-chocolate horse, a prince approaching, perhaps to ride down the black hen and be cursed, perhaps to beg a boon. Magalie and her aunts never told the story; they only started their visitors dreaming.
She gave three-year-old Coco a violet-trimmed bit of vine that the child had begged for and studied their bearer of bad news. La Maison des Sorcères’ eat-the-witches’-display-day was Claire-Lucy’s biggest-business day of the month.
“You haven’t heard who’s going in where Olives was?” Claire-Lucy insisted. Her soft mouth was round with horror, her chestnut hair frizzing with its usual touchable fuzz all around her head. “It’s Lyonnais!” She stared at the aunts and Magalie, waiting for them to shatter at the reverberation of the name.
Magalie’s cozy tea-shop world was not crystalline or fragile,, so it didn’t exactly shatter on its own. It was more as if a great, Champagne-glossed boot came down and kicked it all open to merciless sunshine.
Magalie had been wrong. So wrong. Perhaps Superman could come through and leave her world untouched. But Lyonnais . . .
She looked at her aunts in horror. They looked back at her, eyebrows flexing in puzzlement as they saw her consternation.
“Lyonnais,” she said, as if the name had reached out and tried to strangle her heart. She stared at Aunt Geneviève. Aunt Geneviève was strong and rough-voiced and practical in her way. She knew how to fix a constantly running toilet without calling a plumber. She was tough-minded. But she didn’t seem to get it, her eyebrows rising as the intensity of Magalie’s dismay seemed to build rather than diminish.
“Lyonnais!” Magalie said forcefully, looking at her Aunt Aja.
Aunt Aja was as soft-voiced and supple as a slender shaft of tempered steel. Her dimpled fingers could press the nastiest kink right out of a back. Wrong-mindedness had no quarter around her. Her gentle strength seemed to squeeze it out of existence, not by specifically seeking to crush it but by expanding until foolishness had no room left. Her head was on so straight, the worst malevolence couldn’t twist it. But she looked at Magalie now with a steady concern that crinkled the red bindi in the middle of her forehead. Concerned not because Philippe Lyonnais was opening a new shop just down the street but because she didn’t understand Magalie’s reaction to it.
“Philippe Lyonnais!” Magalie said even more loudly, as if she could force comprehension. “The most famous pastry chef in the world! The one they call le Prince des Pâtissiers!” Was it ringing any bells at all?
Aunt Geneviève tapped her index finger against her chin, a light coming on. “That young man who has been stirring things up with his macarons?”
She spoke the word macarons lovingly, the way any Parisian would. Bearing no resemblance to the chewy, coconut-filled American macaroon, the heavenly sandwiches of air and lusciousness that were the Parisian macaron were the test of a pastry chef’s quality. And, according to all reports, Philippe Lyonnais did them better than anyone else in the world.
“The one who stopped by here the other week?” Aunt Geneviève continued.
“Weren’t you around when he came in, Magalie?” she asked. “He seemed a bit rude to me, acting as if he didn’t have time for us. And he certainly takes up a lot of room in a place,” she added, not entirely with disapproval but not with any intention of yielding her own space, either. “Still, he’s quite cute. If he can improve his manners, you might like him.”
She gazed at her niece speculatively. Geneviève had originally been confused to learn that Magalie leaned toward the opposite sex in her preferences, since her vision of taking on her niece as apprentice hadn’t included any male accoutrements, but she had long since resigned herself to it. Perhaps all the more readily because Magalie didn’t accessorize herself with males very often.
“Mmm.” Aunt Aja made a long sound that meant she foresaw trouble where Aunt Geneviève saw fun. “There was a lot of lion in him. And he is a prince,” she warned Aunt Geneviève apologetically, hating to have to point it out.
“Oh.” Geneviève looked disgruntled.
Magalie gave her a sardonic glance. In the whole history of the known world, there had been no mention of a romantic attachment between a prince and a witch. Lots of battles, yes, lots of arrogant royals reduced to toads, but not much love lost.
Which had suited Geneviève just fine for herself. But, given her niece’s insistence on the male gender for her romantic attachments, it galled her that any member of that group—even a prince—might consider himself above Magalie.
“Philippe Lyonnais, the most famous pastry chef in the world, is opening another branch of Lyonnais right down the street from us.” Magalie tried spelling it out in small words to see if that helped.
Geneviève started to frown.“You know, that is kind of nervy,” she told Aja. “He could have more respect for our territory. I wouldn’t go open a salon de thé right next to him.”
Why . . . yes, Magalie thought. That was a nice way of thinking of things. “But I don’t think it took him nerve,” realism forced her to admit aloud. “I don’t think it took him any more nerve than walking on a bug he didn’t see.”
Aja smoothed her long burnt-sienna tunic over her salwar pants. Her eyebrows crinkled. “Why didn’t he see us?”
Aunt Geneviève finally had the right focus, though. She stared at Magalie in gathering outrage. “You don’t think it took him nerve to open a shop within our territory? You don’t think it took him courage? You think he just did it without even noticing us?”
Magalie nodded. “I think he probably reviewed all the other shops on the island and his market base and decided there was no threat to him here.”
Geneviève’s mouth snapped closed, and within the bubble of her complete silence, Magalie could almost see her aunt’s head explode.
Aunt Aja traced the embroidery on her tunic soothingly. “I would not, of course, threaten anyone,” she said. “I mean him no harm. However, it’s perhaps better for a prince to learn young that looking before one steps is basic self-preservation.”
Geneviève laughed in a way that put Boris Karloff to shame. “I won’t ‘threaten’ him, either. He doesn’t deserve the warning.”
Magalie took a hard breath. Neither woman seemed to have noticed that the reason he’d treated them like a bug was because he could. He could steal their entire market base simply by opening up shop. He wouldn’t have to compete with them. With five generations of pastry chefs behind him, he had been up against his own family heritage and every other pastry chef in Paris since he was born, competing with the whole world, and he had bested all of them. “I’ll go talk to him.”
It might as well be her. At least she had enough understanding of what was happening to be pissed off at the right thing.
Both her aunts frowned at her. “Why would you want to warn him? I hope you aren’t going soft, Magalie,” Geneviève said. “It’s not because he’s cute, is it? I can’t see any good come from letting a man—especially a prince—take advantage of you just because he’s cute.”
“And no threats, either, Magalie,” Aunt Aja said gently. “Remember karma: the fruit you harvest grows from the seeds you plant.”
Aunt Geneviève snorted. “If anyone tries to boomerang a threat back at Magalie, I’m sure we can make him regret it.” Aunt Geneviève believed in karma about like she believed in bullets: they might exist for other people, but they would most certainly bounce off her.
Aja gave her a reproachful look.
“Enfin, Magalie can make him regret it,” Geneviève disavowed quickly. “I’ll just . . . help.”
Claire-Lucy clapped her soft hands together. “Can I watch?”
Magalie was combing her hair in her white-on-white room high above the ground the next morning when a crow banged his head on her window. It shook itself on the sill, glared at her accusingly through the pane, and flew off to complain to a gargoyle on the next island over.. As if she didn’t already know what kind of day it was going to be without that. She’d have to face those very gargoyles when she crossed the bridges into the rest of Paris, too.
She drew ethereal, streaming yards of gauzy white across her windows to avoid encountering any further crows and went to dress. The dawn she had been watching was never more than the faintest blush of yellow-pink on the horizon in Paris, anyway. It was one of the things about the city that made her wistful for her former home. In the South of France, morning coming up over a dew-strewn field of lavender could fill your heart with enough beauty to last through any kind of day at all. But Provence was her mother’s place, and too scarred for Magalie. She had needed her own place and thus had come to this tiny island in the Seine.
She put on stylishly straight black pants that caressed her butt and hugged her thighs but showed a crisp, clean line around her ankles. She put on a teal flowing silk top because she knew the importance of a soft detail amid the black armor she was donning. She slid into her sleek, short black leather Perfecto jacket, which fit her torso and arms almost as closely as a knit top. She drew on ankle boots that had a subtle “rocker” suggestion in their pattern of black-on-black and their four-inch narrow but slightly chunky heels, a broader power base than her stilettos could provide.
She started to braid her hair to put it in a chignon but took one glance into the mirror and undid it. The look smacked of romanticism. Going into the city proper with a streak of romance showing was like going into battle with a gap in her armor right over her belly. She redid her hair without the braid, then deconstructed the chignon enough to make her look casually sophisticated instead of overly concerned with her appearance. She always enjoyed the irony of carefully pulling out wisps here or there to make her hair look careless—but in a perfect way.
On her way out, she stole one small chocolate witch from the shop to tide her over.
Down the cobblestones of the Île Saint-Louis, she walked with familiar confidence, no heels wobbling on the uneven pavement, ducking once or twice onto the narrow sidewalk to make room for the rare car to pass down the street—that of a wealthy islander on his way to work or a shop owner who lived off the island coming in. Thierry, the island’s florist, was setting bouquets out in front of his door. He waved roses at her like a maiden might a silk handkerchief at a departing warrior and promised her his most beautiful bouquet on her return.
As she left the island, a violinist standing tall at the center of the bridge serenaded her, and she dropped some euros into the young man’s hat for good luck. Both of the places she had come from had been so much smaller than Paris. Even after five years, part of her always felt, when she left the island, that she was making a sortie onto a battlefield where her weapons might not be entirely sufficient.
She passed the flying buttresses of the cathedral and crossed the great plaza in front of it, keeping well away from Notre-Dame’s gargoyles. It was just the sort of morning when they might drop something on her head.
Pigeons skittered around her ankles as she walked but kept enough distance to show some respect. Her boots and her walk were still worth that much here, at least; no birds had the nerve to expect bread crumbs from her. On a low stone wall in the plaza, the pigeon woman sat with her arms extended, covered with the birds, while people in tennis shoes took pictures and dropped inappropriate forms of currency into her hat. Magalie nodded respectfully to her. The woman sat quietly in a place of enormous power and let birds collect on her arms through all the flashing of cameras. It never paid to be rude to someone like that.
Magalie held on to her uniqueness as long as she could as she crossed the Île de la Cité, the sister island, despite the increasing presence of cars and foot traffic. She exchanged a last firm look with the green king on his horse in the middle of the great stone bridge at the end of the island, then turned left and headed across more water into the city.
The ring of her boot heels started getting lost in the ring of other boot heels before she had even finished crossing the bridge. Trees rustling with late-autumn leaves extended along the river, forming the border between Paris and what she liked to think of as its heart, the islands in the middle of the Seine. She left the oldest bridge in the city, passing into the trees’ dappled shadows, and then cut away from the river and its islands to the busy Boulevard Saint- Germain. She wanted to huddle into her jacket, but she didn’t. She let it hang open, unzipped, as was proper fashion, and kept her chin up and her stride a long, powerful rhythm of heels against concrete.
Yet, despite her best efforts, the farther she got from the island, the more she felt diminished. Far from her power base, she became just another Parisian woman trying so hard to be the sleekest, the sharpest, to let her boot heels ring the crispest, but becoming one of the millions who did it as well or better, who had more money for higher fashion or longer legs, who had no idea she could make a chocolat chaud you would sell your soul for. Really. The aunts had a signed deed for a famous actor’s soul behind the 1920s cash register among the chocolate molds, as a souvenir of a sorcière’s power.
Around her, people moved briskly, harried out of bed by time and driven by it into work in the middle of a tense week, walking itself an aggression. Occasionally a tourist disturbed the flow, eager and bright-eyed and out early in the morning to soak up the city, with journals and cameras in tow. Unlike the tourists, Magalie did not stand out. Not in any way.
In her bathroom mirror, she had looked exquisite, perfect, exactly the effect she had wanted to produce. On the island, rose bouquets had saluted her in affection and respect. But here—here she was just another pair of boot heels ringing on the sidewalk.
By the time she got to Philippe Lyonnais’s Saint-Germain shop, she was only a twenty-four-year-old woman with limited funds to indulge her taste for fashion, in a big, tense, polished, sexy city.
But he—his power was everywhere. His family name was on the Champs-Élysées, the rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré, here on Saint-Germain—all the power centers of this city. While she and her aunts kept enticing their secrets from the heart of Paris, he stamped his supremacy down over the whole damn city and let people fawn over him. His coat of arms was the gilt lettering on his shop awning. The exquisite nineteenth-century lines of his storefront reflected the glories of his family history. He came from a long line of rulers of Parisian taste buds.
His shop door proclaimed that he didn’t open until ten. She frowned at it—and was surprised when it slid open and let her into an empty shop. That was the kind of thing that happened when Geneviève frowned at things.
The interior was breathtaking. Panels of glossy wood and frescos were carved with the twining rosebuds that had been part of the Lyonnais décor since the first shop opened a century and a half ago. Lions’ heads growled in the molding at each corner of the ceiling. Green marble pillars climbed above the gleaming glass display cases whose contents were more tempting than those of any king’s treasure room and held more colors and richness than a chest of jewels. The tables and chairs seemed to come from a time when women wore sumptuous gowns of twenty yards of silk and men bowed over their hands.
Her skin itched. She wanted to turn around and leave. The presence of even one clerk might have helped, someone who could try to snub her and thus get her pride up. But the opulent perfection was empty.
Something congealed in her stomach, thick and treacly and sickening, as she realized her folly. Here, off her island, she was small and powerless. Glamorous, famous Philippe Lyonnais would look at her incredulously. He would dismiss her out of hand. Her territory was a small cave of a salon de thé on a small island. His rule extended over the whole city, and his influence stretched throughout the world.
She settled her shoulders firmly back and down and opened the door at the back of the salon. And she stepped into an alien world.
It was the first time she had ever been in a professional pastry kitchen or laboratoire. The quantity of metal struck her: the faces of cabinets and refrigerators under marble counters. Metal cooling racks. Great steel mixing machines. Shelves upon shelves, full of plastic boxes on top of boxes labeled with their contents. White-clad men and a few women bustled amid white tile walls and floors, bending intently over huge metal trays. One woman traced a circle stencil over and over onto a piece of parchment paper fitted into a huge metal sheet pan. Beside her, a man squeezed perfectly matching dollops of meringue out in row after row on similarly marked parchment paper. Another woman shifted macaron shells from a tray to a rack on a counter filled with racks.
Multiple colors filled that metal background: rich green macaron shells, peach ones, a garnet red. Someone squeezed ganache from a pastry bag into the upturned shells. A gangly teenager scooped out avocados with deft competence, piling the empty skins in a little tower.
Jokes and intense concentration seemed to intermingle, and someone passed with a great steaming pot, calling “Chaud, chaud, chaud!”
A big man with a wide lion’s grin laughed suddenly, his mane flung back, his hands completely covered with some apricot-colored cream. A pastry bag had burst.
His laughter expanded into the whole room, his energy embracing everyone and everything in it. And that bell in her shop rang again, pure and clear, piercing her through the heart—which hurt like hell—and holding her there, impaled for somebody else’s pleasure.
Philippe Lyonnais. She might not have placed him in their shop, but here in his, she recognized him right away.
Even if she had never seen his face in a hundred magazine articles and television interviews, she still would have recognized the ruler of this jungle.
She stared at him, feeling small and stubborn in her silk and leather. Defiant. Dieu, he had hundreds of macarons spread out here, every single one perfect. She had tried once to make macarons, spent hours in would-be perfectionism, and thrown the resulting flat, dry things into the trash. And she had no idea what would be done with those avocados. But she longed suddenly, intensely to try whatever it was they went into.
Her skills were rough-hewn, primitive. She could make luscious hot chocolate. But surely everyone could, if they bothered. It wasn’t hard. Pure Valrhona chocolate, milk, and cream, or sometimes water, a hint of spice . . . and that slow smile that grew in her while she stirred it . . . Not difficult at all.
It galled her to come, a humble petitioner, into such a prince’s palace. She didn’t have that pathetic role in her to play.
Was she to beg a boon from him? Big, vivid lord of all he surveyed. With his deep laugh like a lion’s purr, filling the room with its vibrations. The hair on her arms rose to that vibration. That couldn’t be good.
Again she wanted to zip her jacket, close the leather over the thin silk of her belted tunic, protect her vulnerable spots. But again, the gesture, the choice of self-defense over fashion, would have been an admission of her own vulnerability, and she raised her chin and refused it.
He saw her at that lift of her chin. Caught in mid-laughter, his blue eyes sparkled merrily as they met hers. His eyebrows went up, and he grabbed a towel to wipe off the apricot cream. His gaze ran over her once and then focused back on her face—and focused intently. Alive. She recognized the look. She had met males who thought to pursue her before. Quite a lot since she had moved to Paris, in fact. It didn’t seem to mean much more than that she wasn’t hideous and was of a nubile age.
He shifted, and anyone else who had even thought about asking her business faded away. They went back to their tasks, enticing her palate to follow them on a taste quest. Were those gold rounds to become caramel macarons, or mango, or . . .?
“May I help you?” By asking the question, Philippe Lyonnais established his ownership of this world, his right to allow her to pass or to drive her out. Or to let her in and then close his forces around her, never letting her get away.
She had left her territory far behind. He didn’t even realize it existed. He would ride his big white stallion right over her hedges and into her garden and never even notice that he had killed her favorite black hen.
Of course he would not help her. Fury at him, and at herself, washed through her, that she was here humiliating herself for nothing. Before him. The vivid life of him, filling this great, bustling space. The discipline and intensity that drew praise from all four corners of the world. She had thought the magazine shoots exaggerated his sex appeal, the way photo shoots did, with makeup and lighting and poses.
All those photos had been nothing in comparison to the real thing. Pale, posed, static images. Never once had a single photo caught him laughing.
She didn’t feel like Magalie Chaudron, a witch of the Île Saint-Louis, who held the magic of chocolate brews in her hands. She felt like Cinderella at the ball, conscious that her fine dress was really ash-covered rags and intense make-believe, and wanting nothing so much as to slink out before the prince saw her.
She hated that feeling.
But she was Magalie Chaudron, whatever she felt like, so, instead, she spoke. Steady. Calm. A little cold, to punish him for that Cinderella effect. “Monsieur Lyonnais?”
He held out a hand. It took her off guard. She hadn’t expected courtesy. Or contact. Especially when the contact sent little shimmers of warmth along her arm too fast for her own defenses to rally. The shimmers went racing all through her body, and her defenses went chasing lamely after, crying stop, stop, stop in vain.
“Oui.” His clasp was strong and gentle at once. What, did she seem that small in his world that he felt he had to be gentle with her?
She looked down at her own hand after his released it. Surely her hand had been enclosed so completely before. Why had she never noticed it? She could still feel the calluses of his palm against her knuckles. The warmth seemed to linger, until her still-chilled left hand curled in jealousy.
He escorted her back to an office space minuscule in contrast to the spacious laboratoire. Books were piled everywhere, in towers on his desk, on shelves around it— great coffee-table books full of beautiful architectural photos and tiny paperbacks stamped with names like Prévert and Apollinaire. His laptop was pushed to one side, and across the center of the desk was spread what appeared to be a printed manuscript, a pen lying across it and little marks correcting details on the page. Scents from the laboratoire filled the space: strawberry, apricot, hot sugar, butter. Her stomach crawled with hunger, that chocolate witch she had eaten reduced to nothing.
He turned, staying on the same side of the desk as she was, making the room still smaller. Making her smaller. Even in her four-inch heels, she barely reached his shoulder.
His broad shoulders. He wasn’t just tall. He was big. Wide shoulders and strong wrists and big square hands. His boxy chef’s jacket hid the rest of him, and she tried to pretend its looseness concealed a potbelly. That was quite a strong, clean jaw for a man with a potbelly, though.
She suddenly wished he would unbutton his jacket. Just so she could know for sure what was under it. The space was so small, and he was focused on her so very intently.
She braced her booted heels and held her body proudly. “I’m Magalie Chaudron.”
He smiled at her. The warmth of that smile turned his eyes azure and seemed to run over her body like a cat’s tongue licking cream. “Enchanté, Mademoiselle Chaudron.”
He said that as if he really was enchanted.
“From La Maison des Sorcières,” she said.
It took him a second, but he did make the connection. “Ah!” Spontaneously, he thrust out his hand and shook hers again. Her right hand flexed involuntarily in delight. Her left hand curled sulkily against her thigh. “So we’re going to be neighbors.”
His eyes sparkled, quite alive at that thought, and subtly flicked over her body again, just once quickly, before coming quite correctly back to her face. But her whole body felt sensitized. A vague, burning curiosity seemed to linger most insistently in places like her nipples against the silk and, worse, the point of pressure between her sex and the seam of her pants. What did he see when he looked at her?
“I hope not,” she said flatly, and his warm expression flickered.
She just could not get that boon-begging past her lips. Instead, she heard herself say, cool and clear “I think you’re making a mistake in trying to move onto the island.”
He didn’t change his stance, but something ran through his body, and the whole feel of his strength in that small space changed. The once-warm eyes flicked over her in an entirely different manner: assessing and dismissing an insignificant challenge.
It made her burn with rage.
“You do?” he said indifferently.
Indifference. Dismissal. Wrath crawled up inside her hands, making them itch to fist and pound against his belief in her insignificance. She dug her knuckles into her thighs.
“I don’t think you realize how well known we are there. People come from all over the city—from all over the world—to our salon de thé. It’s . . . special.” How to make him realize how very special it was if he didn’t see that, feel that, for himself?
“What a fascinating coincidence,” he said coolly. His head was high, that beautiful, tawny lion’s mane curling against his neck. Arrogance clipped his words and polished them, bringing out his privileged birth. “They do the same for me.”
Magalie’s knuckles dug harder into her thighs, as she tried to force herself to stay reasonable. “Exactly. That’s why it might be better for all concerned if you sought different territory.”
There. That sounded nicely neutral, didn’t it? Neither warning him off nor begging him not to come. It was a tricky line to negotiate. She didn’t want to err on the side of humility, that was for damn sure.
His eyebrows went up. He looked so very aristocratic—His Highness, lord of the jungle. “Are you telling me you don’t think I could succeed down the street from you?”
She wished. “I think you will be competing for a well-established customer base.”
The sharp edges of his teeth showed just a little. “I generally do.”
As in, once they taste me, no one else has a prayer.
Her eyes narrowed, her anger no longer blunt fists but sharp points that knew exactly where they wanted to stab. “If you think you can move in there and try to put us out of business, I advise you to reconsider.”
He inhaled with a hiss, as if she had reached out and grabbed him somewhere arousing. “Are you threatening me?” he asked with a little, curling, pleased smile. A smile that said, Oh, good, the tiny mouse was rude. Now I get to eat it for a snack.
“No,” Magalie tried to lie. She had promised Aunt Aja she wouldn’t threaten. But Aunt Geneviève’s blood would out: “You don’t deserve the warning.”
His own eyes narrowed, his pupils dilated. He actually caught his lower lip with the edge of his teeth, as if he was tasting her there. “Oh, really?” The last word came out like a hungry little caress. Tiny mouse, how kind of you to offer yourself to my bored palate.
“My aunts have been there for almost forty years,” she said, anger lashing. “We were there first.”
He inclined his head. He had very beautiful, sharp, white teeth. They looked as if they could cut through almost anything. “Then how thoughtful of you to come welcome me to the neighborhood.”
She snapped her own teeth together. It might take her more than two bites to work her way through him, but she could eat him up, too, if she set her mind to it. “You’re not welcome. If you insist on coming into my territory without even a ‘by your leave, ’ I’m going to make sure you regret it.”
He took a step forward. His eyes glittered, sweeping up and down her face and as far as her throat, which suddenly felt overexposed. But she couldn’t bring herself to lower her chin. In the little office, she was well within grabbing distance of those big hands. Something in his eyes made that very clear. “Your territory? Are you telling me I should ask your permission to open a shop there?”
She took a half step toward him. She would have liked to take a bigger stride, but, given the size of the office, that was all she could do without running into him. “That would have been better manners, certainly. But you would have been denied.”
He gave his head a hard shake. His gaze flashed back to her throat and then up to her eyes. “You introduced yourself, but maybe I should have done the same. I’m Philippe Lyonnais.”
She sneered. She couldn’t help it. The incredulous arrogance in the way he said his name couldn’t be taken passively. “What, am I supposed to bow now?”
Their eyes locked. For a moment, there was nothing else in the room but the war of locked gazes and the sense that if ever either of them lost, it would be . . . delicious. Slowly, carefully, he took a long, long breath and shook his shoulders, resettling his muscles. “Maybe we’re getting off to a bad start.”
In the present context, that was so hilarious, half a laugh surprised its way right through her sneer.
His gaze flickered over her face, and a hint of a wry, responding grin appeared on his lips. Abruptly, he cupped her elbow and led her out of the office. A gentleman escorting a lady to her carriage or a bouncer kicking out a drunk? she wondered dryly. His hand turned the supple leather armor of her Perfecto jacket into a wisp of nothingness between their bodies.
He stopped beside the long marble counter at which he had been working when she came in. The bag that had burst all over him lay there where he had abandoned it. Apparently his employees knew that he took care of his own messes and didn’t expect someone else to do it for him. Near it lay the macarons he had been finishing.
He loosed her elbow long enough to scoop up one of the warm peach shells and sandwich it over the bottom shell, filled already with apricot ganache, tiny bits of apricot still visible in it. With a quick, casually deft hand, he sprinkled it with a dusting of pistachios chopped so impossibly fine as to seem like pixie dust.
“May I?” He offered it to her on a flat palm, a treasure to a princess, with a sudden, brilliant, confident grin. His eyes lit with pleasure in his offering, sure it would bring delight.
Who hadn’t heard of Philippe Lyonnais’s macarons? Food critics, food bloggers, magazines, televisions hosts . . . they all raved about him constantly. It would probably taste like she had been permitted to spend three bites of her life in heaven. Like the essence of apricot had come down and kissed a shy pistachio, and they had decided to hang out and cuddle.
If she bit into that in front of him, she would melt into a puddle at his feet.
And he wouldn’t even notice. If he had a streak of the child in him, he might enjoy the splash around his shoes as he strode through it.
She looked from its promise of heaven to his warm, intense eyes.
Did he think he was that good? That all he had to do to make up for stealing three people’s lives was to offer her one of his prize pastries?
“No, thank you,” she said coldly. Cold, cold, cold. Drawing on all the force and warmth of her blue kitchen, far away on the island, holding its heat close and strong inside her, she gave him its opposite. His rejection from it.
She was looking straight into his eyes when she spoke. She saw the blink, saw his pupils contract to small points.
Why, she had found some way to have an effect on him.
He looked down at the pastry and back at her. “You don’t . . . want it?” He sounded as if he was having to search out words in a new language that had no meaning.
He couldn’t believe she had done it, could he?
Refused that, what he was holding in his hand. His life’s work.
His face went stiff, her chill setting in, the dark blue eyes seeming to pale with the ice. He set the apricot-pistachio macaron very precisely down on the parchment paper from which it had comem. His fingers rubbed slowly together, brushing away pistachio fragments.
If he had been anyone else, she would have felt guilty for bringing that look to his face.
She held his eyes and smiled. Then she turned her back on what was quite probably the most delicious thing she would ever encounter in her life and walked out.
And had the satisfaction of hearing her heels click, click, click into absolute silence as she did so.
Sensuous and sumptuous…a mouth-watering tale of slow-burning passion and combustible consummation that’s as perfectly crafted as the hero’s surprisingly complex confections and as silky and addictive as the heroine’s dark chocolat chaud.
— RT Book Reviews Seal of Excellence & Reviewers Choice Book of the Year nominee
An…enticing treat—frothing with humor, taut with sexual tension, bubbling over with sophistication and charm. And, best of all, this bonbon of a book has a delicious core of feminist sensibility at its heart.
One of the cleverest, most persuasive enemies-to-lovers stories I’ve read in a long time.
Dear Author Recommended Read (A- review)
Adorable, charming, whimsical.
– Smexybooks (A review)
— Publishers Weekly
Mouthwateringly delicious…such a sweet, romantic story of falling in love and finding oneself. It’s the perfect book to cozy up with on a cold winters night.
Must read for Francophiles, chocoholics, and romantics alike.
Laura Florand has done it again. She gives you a story of pure bliss; melt in your mouth, goodness that leaves you wanting more. La Maison des Sorcieres is truly magical…
A sweet, mouth-watering love story.
I adored every page of The Chocolate Kiss, from the lush descriptions of French sweets to the decadent loves scenes between Philippe and Magalie…Paris itself becomes a character, and Florand describes the Ile Saint-Louis as a whimsy-filled place where magic can indeed happen.
Absolutely exquisite from start to finish…pure reading addiction.