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.