CHRISTMAS REUNION IN PARIS                                        Harlequin Romance October 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Parisian reunion With the one that got away! Celebrity chef James Harrington never expected to find himself face-to-face with Chloe, his first love, again...

 

Especially with her working as a chambermaid at his luxury hotel!

 

Their chemistry's as strong as ever, but it's clear she's hiding a secret.

 

This Christmas, can James convince Chloe that their love is worth taking a chance on--again?

 

 

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taste test...

City Diary, London Evening Post, 28 September

Following a meeting with creditors of the Harrington Park Hotel the owner, Nicholas Wolfe, announced today that he has filed for bankruptcy.

Once a name breathed with a sigh of pleasure, considered a home away from home by those wealthy enough to enjoy the Harrington experience, the hotel began to lose its way following the death of Rupert Harrington two decades ago.

Katherine, his widow handed ownership of the hotel to her second husband, American businessman, Nicholas Wolfe in order to concentrate on her young family. Wolfe lacked the magic Harrington touch however; under his stewardship the brand lost its sparkle and following Katherine’s death in a traffic accident, the hotel’s decline, while slow, became terminal.

Rumour has it that James Harrington, owner of the Michelin-starred restaurant L’Étranger, and the younger son of Katherine and Rupert Harrington, has teamed up with his designer twin, Sally Harrington, to put together a bid for the hotel, hoping to restore this iconic London hotel to its former glory.

 

CHLOE was running late. She should be on her way to another job, but an outbreak of ‘flu‘ had left the hotel short-handed and when the head of housekeeping asked her to extend her shift, refusal had not been an option.

The double shift had left her exhausted, her legs, feet, head were aching, but this was the last. The room had been booked for a late arrival, but she was running out of time.

Always uneasy about being upstairs when guests were beginning to return from shopping or sightseeing, she worked fast, but it had to be perfect. She needed this job and mentally ticked off a checklist, ensuring that everything was exactly as a guest who was staying in a luxurious boutique hotel in the heart of Paris would expect.

The small fridge was fully stocked. The flowers perfect, the fruit without a blemish. A bottle of Evian stood beside a gleaming glass. A small, pink-lidded box containing two, light as air, macarons, were on the tray beside the coffee machine.

She took a breath, momentarily swept back to the taste of raspberry and rose petals melting in her mouth. A long ago treat from the boy she loved…

She’d spent too long day dreaming and the click of the key in the lock brought her back to reality with the arrival of Madame to check the room.

‘J’ai terminé…’

‘Prends ton temps, madame…’ The man’s tone was reassuring, not Madame, but the guest telling her to take her time as he dropped his bag and crossed to the window.

He spoke in French and his accent was good, but he was English and her hand trembled as she smoothed back the cover.

A complaint would have been bad, but far worse was the risk that she would come face to face with someone who might recognise her. Someone who had attended the same exclusive private boarding school.

News of where she was, what she was doing - in mocking tones of scandalised amusement - would be flashed around social media within hours/ She would have to leave Paris, start again somewhere else. That would cost money, put the dream further out of reach.

The possibility, she told herself, was vanishingly small. She took a breath, reminded herself that staff were invisible. Even if she did come face to face with someone with whom she’d been at school, someone who knew her parents, they would only see the white shirt, the black waistcoat and skirt.

The uniform not the person.

She straightened from her task, took one last glance around. The man was staring out at Paris, already ablaze with lights for the Christmas season, but she didn’t see the view, only the face mirrored in the glass.

Chloe gasped his name.

‘James…’

It was no more than a whispered breath, but his gaze flickered from the lights of the city to her own image mirrored alongside him.

For a moment, as they looked into the reflection of each other’s eyes, her heart stood still. Would he recognise her? Remember her?

The thought had barely formed before he spun around so fast that, as if he had disturbed the earth’s rotation, the room rocked.

She flung out a hand as her world tilted, throwing her off balance but there was only air to grasp until strong fingers clasped hers, his body steadying her world as he stepped into her, supporting her, holding her, saying her name.

Not a ghost, but the living man with whom. a lifetime ago, she had shared an intense, passionate teenage love.

A doomed romance that had brought disaster down on both their heads but, in his arms, she had forgotten reality, naively blanked from her mind the future planned for her by ambitious parents.

 For a few short months, lying spooned against his body, feeling the slow, steady thud of his heart beating against her ribs, the softness of his sleeping breath against her neck, anything had seemed possible.

Now, unbelievably, he was here, grown into the promise of the youth whose every kiss, every touch had stolen her senses, his fingers entwined in her own, a hand at her back, holding her safe against the breadth of wide shoulders, their bodies touching close. Looking at her as if he could not believe what he was seeing.

His eyes were still that thrilling swirl of grey and green that, for years, had haunted her dreams. To look at his wide, sensuous mouth was to feel his lips angled against hers, feel the heat of his need echoed in the desire pounding through her veins and for a moment, weakly, she leaned into him.

‘Chloe…’ He breathed her name into her hair, as uncertain as the first time he’d kissed her, as the first time they had made love. The same thrilling tremor rippled through her and for a heartbeat, maybe two, she was that girl again, in his arms, lifting her face to him, inviting more.

And then he said her name again, not with that first rare wonder, but with disbelief written into the frown puckering his forehead.

She was clinging to him, waiting for his kiss while he was attempting to relate the glossy princess of the Lower Sixth with whom he had fallen in love to the maid turning down his bed.

 His confusion brought her to her senses.

James Harrington was living his dream, the one they had shared in grabbed moments of privacy, in the precious, never to be forgotten stolen half-term week that her parents thought she was spending with an aristocratic school friend. He’d rented a cottage on the coast. They’d swum in the cold sea, eaten luscious food in the middle of night, made love in front of the fire, totally consumed by their passion.

 Blissful, precious days when they hadn’t had to hide, but had lived their dream, planning the life they would have together one day in Paris. A fantasy world where, for a few short days, nothing could touch them.

And then the stick turned blue.

James did his best to convince her that he could take care of her and their baby, that they would be together no matter what. She wanted to believe him, but that fantasy died with morning sickness. That was something you couldn’t keep secret in the hothouse atmosphere of school. Someone heard her and ratted her out to matron.

‘Chloe?’ James kept her hand in his as she took a step back, attempting to reclaim a little dignity.

‘No…’

Rage, despair, long hours working three jobs, had taken their toll and she was no longer that Chloe. His Chloe.

She couldn’t bear for him to see her like this and she wrenched her hand away, throwing it up to keep him back as she stepped back towards the door.

‘No!’ she repeated more forcefully as he took a step towards her.

The fierceness of her rejection stopped him, giving her time to wrench open the door.

‘Chloe, wait!’

The uncertainty was gone, now. All doubt.

 Eight years older, without the dewy freshness, the gloss, of the girl he’d known, pretending not to know him, to only speak French, he might have hesitated, been left with that disturbed feeling you have when you see a stranger who looks like someone you once knew.

That might have given her enough time to escape.

But he’d always been Jay to everyone.

James, soft and sweet, was the name she’d used when they were on their own. A stranger would not have clung to him, lips parted, inviting a kiss. No maid would abandon her trolley and run, and she knew that he would come after her, demanding answers that she did not have.

He’d grown up in an hotel, knew his way around behind the scenes; there would be no hiding place and she didn’t wait to explain, to change. She just grabbed her coat, bag, boots and made her escape down the narrow lane at the rear of the hotel, the thin soles of her flats slithering on the icy cobbles.

Once in the street, she was quickly swallowed up by the Christmas shopping crowds laden with glossy carrier bags from the designer stores on the Rue Saint-Honoré but she didn’t slow.

She kept running until she was below ground in the safety of the Metro where she boarded the first train to arrive, pushing into the crush, heart pounding, shivering more with shock than cold, gasping for breath, as the train sped through the dark.

It was early evening and the train had the steamy heat of transport packed with people wanting only to get home to their families, food and warmth after a hard day.

Chloe didn’t see them, hear the coughs, the grumbles.

She was lost in the memory of the last time she’d woken in James’ arms. His repeated promise that they would be together, that he would be there for her, always. The brief stolen kiss when he’d received a text telling him that he’d been picked to join the cricket team for a grudge match with a rival school on the other side of the county.

It had never occurred to either of them to be suspicious.

There had been no hint of anything other than an ordinary school day until she was called to the Head’s office.

The Head wasn’t there. Her parents were alone and so, she realised, was she. Matron had pretended to believe her diet story, but it was clear that she had not been fooled.

While she had been listening to Miss Kent drone on about Hardy, someone had packed her belongings and within ten minutes of being delivered into the hands of her mother and father she had been driven away from school.

Cut off from the moment she’d left the classroom, there had been no way for her to leave a note, a message.

James knew where she lived but even if he came after her, he wouldn’t find her. They weren’t taking the road towards their Hampshire estate, or the motorway into London.

Frightened, she had asked her mother where they were going. Her only response had been to hand her a tissue and turn away.

 

James Harrington, stunned, scarcely able to believe his eyes, his ears, remained rooted to the spot.

He had barely noticed the woman turning down his bed. He was still coming to terms with the sudden turn of events in London. The reappearance of his older brother after twelve years of silence, the announcement that Hugo was the new owner of the Harrington Park hotel.

Once he’d recovered from the shock, heard his story, he’d been thrilled that Hugo wanted both him and Sally to be involved in wiping out the bad years when Nick Wolfe had been in control. Excited that he wanted them both to help him restore the hotel to the icon it had once been. But his return had dredged up brutal memories. That ghastly Christmas morning when he and Sally had woken up to discover that Hugo was gone, and no one would tell them where he was or when he’d be home.

Their mother had done her best to fill the gap left by his absence, to be there for them. She had even signed the hotel over to Nick, no doubt convinced by him that it would give her more time to spend with her remaining children. The man was an ace manipulator.

The car crash in which she’d died had shattered them both, and their Nick Wolfe had been quick to rid himself of the burden of a couple of step-children.

It had hit Sally especially hard and her reaction when Hugo had turned up out of the blue had been a release of all that anger, all the pain that had been bottled up inside her.

He’d understood her inability to accept that he’d been forced to stay away, to empathise with what he’d been through, but it had been emotionally draining, his nights disturbed by the return of exhausting dream searches down endless corridors for those lost.

His parents.

Hugo.

Chloe and the baby they had made.

She had vanished off the face of the earth eight years ago and when he’d seen her reflection in the window beside him, he had thought for a moment that he was imagining it. That she was a phantom dredged up by those dreams.

Then their eyes had met.

He’d caught her as she’d swayed, felt her breath on his cheek, his lips. Could still feel the warmth of her hand where he’d grasped her fingers. Still, in his mind, feel the warmth of lips that had, for just a moment, been his to take.

Instead, scarcely able to believe his eyes, he had hesitated, unsure, and she had run.

Did she believe that he had rejected her?

‘Never!’

Jerking himself out of shocked immobility he wrenched open the door but wasted seconds had given Chloe time to disappear.

She wouldn’t have waited for the lift and he raced to the staff stairs, leading straight down to a part of the hotel that guests never saw. He was down two flights before reality brought him crashing to a halt.

If he burst into housekeeping, chasing a woman who’d run from him, he knew exactly what they’d think. Bad enough, but he’d won a major television show, was the youngest chef ever to win a Michelin star for, L’Etranger, the restaurant he’d founded on the back his television fame.

His face had been on the cover of enough lifestyle and food magazines to make him recognisable, especially here in Paris where food was a religion.

He didn’t care what they said about him, but speculation would be all over social media by morning.

Until he knew why Chloe was working here, in housekeeping, he needed to exercise discretion because something was wrong. Badly wrong.

The Forbes Scotts were old money. The kind of people who lived behind a security cordon on their estate when they were in the country. In a penthouse apartment accessible only from a private lift in the city. Who spent their vacations on the private islands owned by their friends.

Powerful, rich as Croesus, they could, as he discovered when he’d tried to contact Chloe, could throw up a wall of silence as impenetrable as their security systems.

He hadn’t seen or heard from her since she’d been whisked away while he’d been on the other side of the county, bored out of his mind, sitting out the game as twelfth man on the side lines of the pitch.

After all the publicity about the Michelin star he had, for a while, lived in hope that Chloe might walk into L’Etranger one day; take in the clubby atmosphere of the ground floor, order a cocktail, ask to meet the chef. Or maybe arrive for the fine dining on the floor above with friends, a partner…

At least send him a card offering her congratulations.

Something. Anything.

Pie in the sky.

She might have smiled to see his success, perhaps remembered a doomed, youthful passion, but she would have moved on, married someone approved by her parents.

She would definitely not want to have her life complicated by him turning up and demanding answers.

Clearly, whatever happened in the years since she’d disappeared from school, it couldn’t have been that.

Did she marry someone her parents disapproved of? That wouldn’t be difficult. She’d warned him how it would be. Money spoke to money and anyone short of a multi-millionaire would have been viewed as a fortune hunter.

Did she have a family now?

He leaned back against the wall, swept up in the memory of the anger, the pain of the boy he’d been. He’d had no illusions about the likely outcome of a youthful pregnancy caused by the urgency of their need for one another. His ineptitude.

He pounded a fist into the wall.

Did she think that he’d blame her? She’d warned him what her parents were like, how controlling they were, but with the arrogance of youth he’d dismissed her fears. He had the money his father had left him. A pittance compared to her family’s wealth, but enough to live the life they had talked about.

He’d promised he would take care of her and their baby. Promised that they would be a family.

He swore as his phone pinged a warning that it was time to leave for his meeting with the chef he hoped to recruit for Harringtons. He turned to walk back up the stairs and paused as something glinted on the steps above him.

He reached out and picked up a piece of crushed silver. It was, or had been, an art deco silver hair pin. He knew that because he’d bought it for Chloe’s seventeenth birthday and it seemed likely that that he’d stood on it on his rush down the stairs.

He did not want to leave but Chloe was, for the moment, beyond his reach and time was short if Hugo was to have the hotel open for Christmas Eve.

Louis Joubert was an old friend, but even so it was going to be a hard sell and he had the dramatic temperament to match his flair. He had squeezed in this meeting before starting service and keeping him waiting would not be a good start.

He slipped the piece of silver into his pocket to deal with later.

It was a crazy busy time of year for everyone and he should be in London, in his own kitchen, but he wasn’t leaving Paris until he’d talked to Chloe.

 

 

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From the book CHRISTMAS REUNION IN PARIS by Liz Fielding

Copyright © 2020 by Liz Fielding