Eloise Layne, food blogger extraordinaire, is going for the big time: Paris. Abandoning New York to follow a dream, she has installed herself in a cupboard-sized apartment in the heart of the City of Light, where she can explore the world’s best chocolate- and pastry-makers, and tell her readers all about them. First to be investigated: Simon Casset, whose sculptures of chocolate and spun sugar make a woman feel she can soar to the skies. Whose sense of privacy has kept his private life well out of the public eye. And whose steel-blue eyes seem to see right through to her underwear when he catches her photographing his shop on the sly.
Going undercover as a bride-to-be, Ellie sets out to learn his secrets. But somehow, he’s the one who seems able to see right through her. And every detail she makes up about her perfect fiancé turns out to describe Simon to a T. It’s just a shame she has to cheat on the imagined one to have the one who is right there in the flesh…
And tempting her with chocolate–and kisses–at every turn…
The problem with summer in Paris was the lack of coats, Ellie decided. She hadn’t really thought the timing through, when she decided to take her blogging artist career to a whole new level by moving here, but sundresses made it hard to hide a camera. Also, no one else on the streets seemed to be wearing a sundress, which was a little disconcerting; hers, in its white on sunny green flower pattern, had made her think of summer in Paris. Exciting new ventures. Seizing life with both hands.
She angled her phone as best she could, trying to look like a farsighted person reading a text message, and took a shot of the luscious display of chocolate in the window.
She loved this man. More than Sylvain Marquis, even, more than Philippe Lyonnais, more than Dominique Richard, she loved this one, the severely private Simon Casset. She loved what he did with his chocolate and sugar, the fantastical structures of it, the way they rose and rose in whirls and swirls of colors and whimsy, as if gravity had no meaning, as if the only thing that would ever stop him was lack of oxygen up there in the stratosphere.
She had gone to his exhibit at the Salon du Chocolat in New York last year, but hadn’t seen him. She had circled around his sculptures taking picture after picture, just longing for him, for his world, to know how he worked, to see the man who made this. Later, from her photos, she had painted some of her best-selling works. Her readers had snatched them off her blog faster than you could click PayPal.
But now…she had done it. Left the safety of New York, made the leap to Paris. Now she didn’t have to long from a distance. Now she, Eloise Layne, food blogger extraordinaire, artist, and newly minted Parisienne-in-training, was going to awe her readers worldwide by finding out his secrets. First Simon Casset’s and then, one after the other, those of every top chocolatier and pâtissier in Paris. She could be exploring the magic of food for years here.
She didn’t have to long from a distance, but…she hadn’t quite anticipated how much these superheroes of the Parisian gourmet scene would intimidate her, how embarrassed she would feel to go up and introduce herself, to ask for interviews and photographs. What were her credentials? A blogger. Nobody took that seriously.
And—moving to Paris was all very exciting, but God, did she feel vulnerable, out there floating in mid-air with nothing to count on. It was hard to get up still more gumption.
Maybe a particularly spectacular post would generate enough clicks that she could buy one of those spy cameras with the advertising money and—she took a step back, worried about the light reflecting off the display window, and ran right into something hard.
The hardness closed around her, fingers curling into her bare upper arms. “May I help you?” a voice of steel asked.
She jumped, or would have, except the grasp held her so strongly she couldn’t get any upward momentum. Fleetingly, irrationally, something strange took hold of her: a sense of purchase, as if she had just been given something to count on in her gravity-defying leaps. “I”—she fumbled with her phone, trying to switch it from camera to text page. The phone went flying from her nervous fingers, hit the flagstones hard, and slid.
“Oh, crap,” she said in English and looked down—right into a storm grate. “Crap.” Had her last link with stability just slid down the drain? Alone in Paris, no real job, no friends, whole life uprooted, following a dream, unable to sleep from the constant sense of eager panic at what she was doing…and now no phone. There was only so much exhilirated terror a body could take before she had to sit down and put her head between her knees.
The firm fingers released her, which felt like the final betrayal. She had just started relying on their strong grip. She floundered, twisting to face their owner.
She looked up past a fitted gray T-shirt over hard shoulders to—oh, God, that was Simon Casset himself. She recognized him from the rare photos she had managed to track down, usually poorly shot ones at reward ceremonies. Unlike media darlings Sylvain Marquis and Philippe Lyonnais, or the infamous trouble-maker Dominique Richard, Simon Casset let his work speak for him and kept the person who made it—him—out of the spotlight.
He could have been a media darling, though, she thought, with a sudden wave of yearning that caught her by surprise, as if she had been playing with her back to the ocean. This man made those beautiful swooping dreams? With his long, lean body, the angular, ascetic face with the cool, proud cheekbones, the steel-blue-gray eyes, and the tousled black hair that fell in one lock over his forehead like a cute nerd dragged out of a bout of computer programming? A few choice photo shoots, and he could be plastered up on bedroom walls where women could swoon over him in hopeless longing.
That bare wall at the foot of her bed, for example…
She tried to get a grip, wishing she hadn’t lost his more effective one, still marking her like a slow stamp of heat. She glanced at her arms, half-expecting to see gold fingerprints against her skin. How did he do that? Grip her so firmly that she couldn’t even jump a half-inch but with such control that it hadn’t hurt?
She looked back up at him, and attraction swept through her in a high cresting wave again. A man with that lean strength of his should be required to wear baggy clothes like they did in America. To protect hopeless cases like her.
So why didn’t he play to the media? Too impatient, too private, too modest? Maybe she could be the person who revealed him to the world, the investigative blogger who showed the man behind the creations, the—
“Who sent you?” he asked, with a cool lift of one eyebrow. He stood so close, she felt invaded. Loomed over. French, she reminded herself.Smaller sense of personal space. Still—that small? “Marquis? Lyonnais? Richard? Who wants to spy on my work this week?”
The top chocolatiers-pâtissiers in Paris spied on each other? Delighted excitement surged. See, now, this was good stuff. She had been right to move here. She could get all kinds of dirt. Cover story. She needed a darn cover story. If he was a private person, he might not right away warm up to the idea of her plastering him all over the web.
“I’m getting married,” she said off the top of her head.
A little thin clear sheet of plastic slipped between her and the chocolatier. Barely detectable to the naked eye. But there just the same. Somehow her personal space grew, and she never even saw him shift.
Wait. Oh, damn. Had he been noticing her? Like in a thinking-she-looked-cute-in-her-sundress way? Stupid cover story.
But that penetrating gaze of his made it absolutely impossible for her to back down from it. She had to be ready for this tough Parisian chocolate scene. Ready to report on the best of the best of the best…and not get caught skulking on the street because their coolly lofty cashiers intimidated her. And definitely not pour out her soul in some slovenly way at Simon Casset’s feet because he raised his eyebrows. “And I’m comparing the different chocolatiers in the city so we can decide who we want to have do the pièces for the reception,” she said brightly, putting a little bit of snooty into it, like someone who could afford to have him do her wedding.
Instead of someone who had just installed herself in an apartment the size of a walk-in closet and was praying this would all work out like she had planned and she would be able to make the rent.
He studied her for one moment as if he could see right through to her underwear and maybe the soul underneath. Her soul was not sexy, she couldn’t do anything about that, but she sure wished she had worn something better than a white cotton bra and panties.
She forced down that urge to confess all and throw herself on his mercy—I just threw my whole life over to live this dream, can I come take pictures of everything you do and show the whole world, please, pretty please? Firmly, she brightened her smile a couple of notches.
His eyes flicked over her, down and up, just once in an infinitesimal shift. She might as well be walking around naked, that one flick made her feel so exposed. “I suppose that means you would like to visit my laboratoire and look at some of the previous work I’ve done.” He sounded resigned.
Her breath came in on a rush. “Reall—I mean, yes, that would be”—Wait, she had to get a spy camera first. She swallowed and firmed her tone. “I should narrow down my top choices before I”—
His eyes narrowed fractionally. Oh, he didn’t like that, to not automatically be her top choice, did he?
“—And—and talk to my fiancé about it. But perhaps we could set up an appointment to discuss it? Tomorrow?” If she could sit on her excitement that long. Spy camera, she reminded herself. Don’t waste this opportunity.
“Bien sûr,” he said evenly. He scrutinized her a second more, and she tried gamely to look credible. “Will your fiancé be joining us?”
Zut, alors. Now where could she stash a non-existent fiancé so she could go invade a superstar chocolatier’s privacy? She gave him a smile so bright it nearly bounced off the steel in those eyes of his and blinded her. “Of course!”
Simon watched the lithe figure disappear down the sidewalk, a spring in her step, bouncing from exuberance. Her ponytail bobbed against the nape of her neck, all that mass of deep russet brown waves contained at one point by an elastic they clearly resisted. A man could slip his thumbs into that elastic and snap it in two. He would feel like the world’s greatest liberator, freeing the rebellious population so that it spilled out all over his hands in giddy delight.
And her eyes would widen in a kind of thrilled alarm as his hands cradled her skull and dealt so ruthlessly with her bonds, and her lips would part as he bent his head and kissed her until she would tell him the truth just to get more kisses…
The vision was so powerful his thumbs tingled from the texture of her hair, from an elastic snapping. His mouth felt softer, almost bruised.
Last year, on a desert endurance race, just when the going was at its grimmest, he had spotted the palm trees of an oasis in the distance. Oddly, the exact same feeling had shot through him when he took in that excited, bright face, that slightly rounded, not-particularly-muscled body.
A first thrill of exquisite relief and then: determined, focused, and very very thirsty.
The warm green of her sundress stood out among the cool, clean lines of the Parisians brushing past her on the sidewalk. One of his hands curled into a fist when those more subdued colors finally blocked her from view. One last little glimpse of green and she disappeared around the corner.
Don’t be a mirage, he thought.
Or already taken. Although—there must be any number of ways to dispose of an inconvenient fiancé.
A fiancé who had been oh-so-conveniently produced. If she hadn’t been spying on him for one of his rivals, why not pull out a regular camera, introduce herself, and take photos openly?
He crouched, stretched an arm under the nearest parked car, and pulled out her phone. No code protected it. He flipped back through her photos, finding several of his display windows, none inside the shop. His eyebrows flicked together at the next photos, familiar chocolate work, not his own. Had she been visiting Sylvain Marquis, too? Before him? Annoyance hummed at her priorities.
Those photos, too, were taken at awkward angles, light often reflecting off glass, like someone who hadn’t dared ask to be allowed behind the display cases. That was one shy bride.
He switched to her address book, but she didn’t have any of his rivals entered in it. Maybe she was spying for herself? Looking to start her own chocolate shop in the United States?
He flipped to her “Recent Calls” and found a male name as number one. Merde, alors. David Layne. Well, he hadn’t been forced through years of English classes in school for nothing. He hit the call button.
“Ellie?” The voice on the other end sounded startled and wary.
“No, I’m sorry. I found this phone on the street, and I am trying to get it back to its owner. Are you a friend?”
“No, her brother.”
Simon grinned and turned to look in the direction of the disappeared green sundress. A woman could have a brother and a fiancé. But the next three most recent calls made on her phone had been to “Mom”, another woman, and a company, and that over several days. “If you can tell me how to find her, I can give it back to her.”
Unfortunately, her brother wasn’t an idiot. “It’s probably better if I get your information and have her contact you.”
Well, it had been worth a shot. He gave the brother his name and shop address and double-checked her incoming calls for an obsessed fiancé calling her so often she never got a chance to be the one to call him. No, the past four calls, in a twenty-four hour period, had come from “Mom”.
In his office, he tried Googling “Ellie Layne”, “Ellen Layne”, “Eleanor Layne”, and every spelling of Elizabeth he could think of. Unfortunately, all variants called up plenty of search results, and after he had checked the photos of one Vegas call girl and multiple Facebook sites, he finally gave up.
No photos gazed back at him with happy green eyes that widened when he looked at her too steadily, or brown hair that practically wiggled with energy, or a bowed lip that curved into an impudently bright grin when she was lying, or skin so transparent that he could see exactly how nervous he made her. He gave up looking, his mind wandering…over cheekbones with a suggestion of freckles so faint it was like the gold specks on a ripe pear…tracing the delicate white strap that peeked out under her sundress, following it down to the soft, generous breasts it supported. He would bet anything her bra and panties matched: dainty, white, innocent cotton. Arousal closed one lazy, hard hand around his body and wouldn’t let him go, as he thought about that white cotton.
He studied her phone, with its screen photo of the Eiffel Tower. Not, for example, of her cheek pressed against some man’s while he stretched the camera out and took a picture of them standing in front of it.
He smiled a little. Then that smile broke into a narrow grin, restrained, controlled, and infinitely more dangerous for that restraint. He didn’t have a one-track mind for nothing. Control and focus would get you what you wanted every time.
If her fiancé existed, he was a very lucky man.
And his luck was about to change.
These feel-good stories feature couples who have some fun, along with a dawning awareness of what they want in a mate, as they find their happily ever afters. The book starts out strong with Martin’s story of an independent career woman who recognizes the chance for love, and ends with Florand’s delightful Parisian chocolate adventure. It will get you in the mood for the wedding season!
— 4 Stars, RT Book Reviews
The last story, All’s Fair in Love and Chocolate by Laura Florand, is quite simply a guilty pleasure.
— All About Romance
Readers will enjoy relaxing with these romantic yarns.
— Publishers Weekly
Each author presents a tender love story with generous helpings of humor and erotic adventures tossed in for good measure. Each story is unique and satisfying. This is a perfect collection for any reader of romance novels. There is something in these pages to satisfy almost every taste.
— Fresh Fiction