Authors: Laura Florand
Tags: #Romance Fiction
By LAURA FLORAND
Happiness, Luc thought as he stroked his wife’s bare shoulder, was not like chocolate. It didn’t melt if you held it too long in your hands.
He lowered his head to her nape, a profound ease spreading through his muscles as he breathed in her scent—coconut and tiare from the monoï oil she still used, to carry the scent of the tropics with her everywhere.
Happiness was not like spun sugar. His fingers spread her golden hair over the pillow, a net of tangled silk. It didn’t shatter if your fingers held it a fraction too tightly. It let you play with it forever and never grew too brittle for touch.
The light from the bathroom cast his shadow over Summer’s gold.
He lowered that shadow, spreading it all over her to capture her gold for his as he braced his arm. He loved this moment—when his body skimmed hers in so many places, just barely held separate from hers, so many tiny contacts vibrating through him, waking greedy hungers for more.
Because happiness wasn’t like anything he worked with at all. It wouldn’t get marred if he gripped it too hard sometimes and held it to him too tightly.
His happiness, in fact, would probably like it. His lips curved at the thought of how much, as he brought his lips to brush just lightly over the corner of her sleep-parted ones, hunger growing. Because it turned out his happiness did have one thing in common with his work—he could eat it all up and still make more of it tonight.
Summer’s eyes blinked open, and she rolled the rest of the way over onto her back, her lips forming a sleepy invitation for another kiss. In the growing light of dawn, he could almost make out the blue of her eyes.
The growing light of dawn?
His head lifted. 6:00 AM glowed by the bedside in green digits. Oh, shit, he was already late. He had to catch his damn fruit supplier and personally strangle him.
He pressed a firm kiss on Summer’s lips and leapt from the bed, running a hand over himself to straighten his clothes as he headed for the door. That was what he got for letting himself get distracted when he stopped to kiss his wife good-bye.
Thank God happiness was different from anything else he had ever known or worked with in his life.
Thank God that sometimes, if he needed to, he could even save it for later. He paused at the door to look back at his wife. “I love you. I’m sorry, it’s just—” He gestured to himself, to the door. To the insane demands of this new restaurant that he was trying to get off the ground, so that they could make their new home here in Provence, this happy, sun-filled country that he had never known.
“I know.” Still sleepy, she made a little reassuring gesture with her hand, as if she was petting his worries away, and shook her head, smiling at him. “I’ll come in after I get a shower.”
He hesitated. “You don’t have to. I can handle it by myself.”
I can handle anything. By myself.
That was always the best way to handle things. “I don’t
you.” God, that was such a stupid lie. Why did he keep trying to tell it? Sometimes, when he tried to do accounts himself instead of relying on her, it felt like the damn spreadsheet program was going to leap out of the screen with monster teeth and eat him alive.
Something flickered in her expression, but then it was gone. And she shook her head again, with another smile. “I like to help, Luc.”
Was he a strong enough man for her, if he needed her help? But he found himself smiling at her, despite the pressure of that growing light and all its demands on him. “I love you,” he said again.
Those had to be the sweetest damn words in the world. Except for possibly—
“I love you, too, Luc.”
Yeah. Those ones. Those were the absolute sweetest.
So he had to keep deserving them. He blew her a kiss and hurried out the door.
As a child, he’d once had a cardboard box in which he kept all his happiness—a toy found abandoned in the Métro, a bracelet a little girl gave him in a park. A box marked all over with scary monster faces to keep away anyone who would want to steal its contents.
He couldn’t keep Summer in a box. He’d like to, but then she wouldn’t be happy herself. So he took deep breaths as he walked away from her, toward his restaurant. He insisted on believing in them with each and every breath.
Because it was counterintuitive. It didn’t correspond with anything else he had ever learned in his life. But thank God it was true that sometimes his happiness would keep.
Summer lay back again in the bed, lingering in the slide of Egyptian cotton sheets, gazing out the huge window onto the Mediterranean far below. It was a long way from a shack on a remote South Pacific island to a luxury home on the Côte d’Azur—a long way
, as if her pampered and lovelorn childhood kept reaching hands out of her past to try to grab her and drag her down again—but she had Luc this time. And she had the strength in herself that she had built in those four years on the island, four years when she had escaped from her heiress lifestyle to become someone of value, someone who mattered.
So even though it was lonely, and even though she had yet to find a single friend and had to pretend the restaurant staff were her friends, their life here was not going to be anything like her childhood at all.
And she had an appointment. She rested her hand on her belly.
Best not to get Luc’s hopes up until she knew for sure, because it would turn him into a basket case. He would get so excited in that intense, incredulous way he reacted to happiness, and so crushed—in that contained, back-behind-shields way he reacted to disappointment—if those hopes were dashed.
She’d wait until she knew for sure, until Luc wasn’t caught up in the restaurant and had a chance to focus. Because after all, if it was what she thought it was, the news would keep.
She caressed her belly curiously, hopefully, even warily.
She was trying to be strong, and she was trying not to whine and wish for her island friends, but if she was right about what the doctor was going to say, she wasn’t entirely sure she could handle this news all by herself.
It was midnight before Luc stepped out of the kitchens into that still unfamiliar and lovely Provençal alley behind the restaurant, flexing his shoulders, rolling his head, his eyes closing just a moment as he took a deep breath of cool night air and jasmine and clean stone, trying to ease the stress out. God, what a night. He missed his team in Paris so damn bad.
What he wouldn’t give to have his old
Patrick down here, all laughing pseudo-surfer attitude and intense skill, helping him get this restaurant running right. Instead of helping with the transition to a new chef at the Leucé sixty hours a week and buried in his math and physics summer courses another twenty, trying to build up the foundation to start an engineering degree.
Engineering. Luc had tried and tried to wrap his mind around that as a career for Patrick, but he couldn’t even entirely imagine what an engineer would
From everything he’d read, it sounded like what he and Patrick already did, only with a lot more boring materials.
And with permanence. There was that.
So he’d lost Patrick—to one of his own interns, a black-haired woman named Sarah—and to another dream. One that had permanence.
And now he had everything on his shoulders, every single aspect of making sure this
, that one of the wealthiest and most beautiful heiresses on the planet hadn’t married a failure. That the sweetest, shyest pseudo-socialite hadn’t bravely left her island and come into his harsh world for nothing.
He couldn’t be nothing again. For her sake, he couldn’t be nothing.
He was used to refusing to be nothing for his
sake, and to have it instead be for her, to have had his whole world shifted so that he was no longer his own center but she was, left him radically off-balance. But he was doing his best.
And his best was the best in the world, damn it. It was.
But right now…the compressor in the walk-in had failed, putting thousands of dollars of food stuff at immediate risk, not to mention that it would have shut them down for days if the supplies got ruined and couldn’t be replaced. So he’d spent an hour frantically calling around in a strange region—the Parisian snob chef whom no one local quite wanted to help—trying to find someone who could fix it at that hour of the night. His chef de cuisine, Nico, from the area, had stepped in and made a few calls and someone had shown up a half hour later, which would have been fine, except that normally the executive head chef
a chef de cuisine, not a pastry chef, and Luc had to establish his authority and power absolutely for the staff to accept the reversal of the roles. He couldn’t be the person who failed to solve a problem that his chef de cuisine could solve with a couple of calls.
Then his night dishwasher and his night porter were acting as if they were about to knife each other, and he had no idea why. That was the kind of personal dispute that Patrick had always solved. His new sous-chef, Antoine, just didn’t seem to have the knack yet.
Summer, actually, had an odd knack for it. But since most of his staff was in love with her and would do anything to make her smile at them, it was a knack that made him want to strangle every one of them. And Summer had taken the afternoon off and hadn’t come back in for the dinner service. He’d missed her. This great hole opened in his life when she wasn’t there, and he had to remind himself that he was a sane adult man and not that obsessive, clinging brat that kept clamoring back from his childhood.
Not everyone wanted to spend every waking moment in a restaurant. It was fine.
He had to do payroll tomorrow morning, unless he let Summer do it for him, but he couldn’t inflict that on his own wife. Payroll, God. All the bits and pieces of working hours, who had covered for whom, who had worked a double shift, who was flat-out lying about the hours he claimed. At the Hôtel de Leucé, sure he had to keep things in order in his part of the kitchen, but the hotel had had
. Good ones, too. In the end, he could shove it over to them.
Here, like everything else, it was all on him. The math of it was already giving him a migraine, and he’d downed eight aspirin already tonight.
“Let me,” a warm, husky voice said, and his eyes flew open.
“Summer.” He tried to relax all the tension out of his shoulders as he turned toward her. She couldn’t see this. How hard this was. How intensely he fought to succeed.
Perfection costs me nothing. Of course not. It’s just the way I am.
Which, if it were true, would make me almost worth you. That fragile, generous, wanting heart of yours that you let me hold.
He smiled at her, happiness seeping through all those tense muscles and unwinding them in an involuntary way far more powerful than all his efforts to force the relaxation.
“Here.” Summer reached her hands up to grip his shoulders, digging her fingers in, and he gazed down at that beautiful face that was all his. Delicate but strong cheekbones, sunlight hair, blue eyes, fingers trying so hard to be strong enough to really ease his muscles.
Because she was so much smaller than he was, she couldn’t really dig into his muscles properly from her position, but…the effort accomplished quite a lot. Her fingers finally shifted from the attempts at massage to stroke gently up and down the nape of his neck. Pleasure ran through him, this shivering deep sensation of slightly too cold water after a much too hot day. He would ease into it in a second. His body would accept it, be delighted with it, just as soon as it had a chance to adjust to the fact that it was actually his.
“I’ll give you a better massage when you get home and can stretch out,” Summer said. A tiny flicker in her eyes, the most fleeting look. “Do you think you’ll get home soon?”
A knot of tension came back, even under her hands. “I’m trying,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
He knew it was one of the things she had most feared from him, that he would pour himself into his work just as her self-made billionaire father had and forget to leave her any worth or room in his life at all. He’d promised not to be like her father.
“It’s okay, Luc.” She stroked his cheeks. “I know. I know getting it off the ground is hard.”
She always said that. She always seemed okay.
Okay being the one to make all the efforts for them to see each other. Okay coming into the restaurant to fold napkins and set tables and act as hostess when their new staff once again failed to show up. Okay stopping by the restaurant late at night like this just to talk to him a minute and rub his shoulders. Okay being the person who poured out all her support with a smile and never, ever asked for a single thing back.
But Summer was so good at faking things to try to please. Had any other man ever thought she was okay with him right up until he was staring at that golden hair as she walked away?