Dom straightened from the enormous block of chocolate he was creating, gave his
maîtresse de salle,
Guillemette, a disgruntled look for having realized he would want to know that, and slipped around to the spot in the glass walls where he could get the best view of the
below. He curled his fingers into his palms so he wouldn’t press his chocolaty hands to the glass and leave a stain like a kid outside a candy shop.
She sat alone as she always did, at one of the small tables. For a week now, she had come twice a day. Once in the morning, once in the afternoon. She was probably a tourist, soaking up as much French artisanal chocolate as she could in her short stay in Paris, as they liked to do. But even he admitted it was strange that her soaking up should be only of him. Most wandered: him in the morning, Philippe Lyonnais in the afternoon, Sylvain Marquis the next day. Tourists read guidebooks and visited the top ten; they didn’t have the informed taste to know that Sylvain Marquis was boring and Dominique Richard was the only man a woman’s tongue could get truly excited about.
This woman—looked hard to excite. She seemed so pulled in on herself, so utterly quiet and contained. She had a wide, soft poet’s mouth and long-lashed eyes whose color he couldn’t tell from that far away. Hair that was always hidden by a hood, or occasionally a fashionable hat and a loosely tied scarf, like Audrey Hepburn. High cheekbones that needed more flesh on them. A dust-powder of freckles covered her face, so many they blurred together.
The first day, she had looked all skin and bones. Like a model, but she was too small and too freckled, so maybe just another city anorexic. When she had ordered a cup of
and a chocolate éclair, he had expected to see her dashing to the
soon after, to throw it up before the binge of calories could infect her, and it had pissed him off, because he loathed having his chocolate treated that way.
But she had just sat there, her eyes half closed, her hands curling around the hot cup of chocolate caressingly. She had sat there a long time, working her way through both éclair and
bit by little bit. And never once had she pulled out a journal or a phone or done anything except sit quite still, absorbing.
When she had left, he had been surprised to feel part of himself walk out with her. From the long casement windows, he had watched her disappear down the street, walking carefully, as if the sidewalk might rise up and bite her if she didn’t.
That afternoon, she was back, her hands curling once again around a cup of his
and this time she tried a slice of his most famous
Taking slow, tiny mouthfuls, absorbing everything around her.
Absorbing him. Everything in this place was him. The rough, revealed stone of the archways and three of the walls. The heavy red velvet curtains that satisfied a hunger in him with their rich, passionate opulence. The rosebud-embossed white wall that formed a backdrop to her, although no one could understand what part of him it came from. The gleaming, severe, cutting-edge displays. The flats of minuscule square chocolates, dark and rich and printed with whimsical elusive designs, displayed in frames of metal; the select collection of pastries, his
gâteaux au chocolat,
his éclairs, his
; clear columns of his caramels. Even the people around her at other tables were his. While they were in his shop, he owned them, although they thought they were buying him.
The third afternoon, when the waiter came upstairs with her order, Dom shook his head suddenly. “Give her this.” He handed Thierry the lemon-thyme-chocolate éclair he had been inventing that morning.
He watched the waiter murmur to her when he brought it, watched her head lift as she looked around. But she didn’t know to look up for him and maybe didn’t know what he looked like, even if she did catch sight of him.
When she left, Thierry, the waiter, brought him the receipt she had left on the table. On the back she had written,
and signed it with a scrawled initial. L? J? S? It could be anything.
A sudden dread seized him that
and he wouldn’t see her again, her flight was leaving, she was packing her bags full of souvenirs. She had even left with a box of his chocolates. For the plane ride. It left a hole in him all night, the thought of how his
would be without her.
But the next morning, she was back, sitting quietly, as if being there brought repose to her very soul.
He felt hard-edged just looking at her restfulness, the bones showing in her wrists. He felt if he got too close to her, he would bump into her and break her. What the hell business did he have to stand up there and look at her? She needed to be in Sylvain’s place, somewhere glossy and sweet, not in his, where his chocolate was so dark you felt the edge of it on your tongue.
She needed, almost certainly, a prince, not someone who had spent the first six years of his working life, from twelve to eighteen, in a ghastly abattoir, hacking great bloody hunks of meat off bones with hands that had grown massive and ugly from the work, his soul that had grown ugly from it, too. He had mastered the dark space in his life, but he most surely did not need to let her anywhere near it or to think what might happen if he ever let it slip its leash.
“She certainly has a thing for you, doesn’t she?” his short, spiky-haired chocolatier Célie said, squeezing her boss into the corner so she could get a better look. Dom sent a dark glance down at the tufted brown head. He didn’t know why his team persisted in treating him like their big brother or perhaps even their indulgent father, when he was only a few years older than they were and would be lousy at both roles. No other top chef in the whole city had a team that treated him that way. Maybe he had a knack for hiring idiots.
Maybe he needed to train them to be in abject terror of him or at least respect him, instead of just training them how to do a damn good job. He only liked his equals to be terrified of him, though. The thought of someone vulnerable to him being terrified made him sick to his stomach.
“She must be in a hotel nearby,” he said. That was all. Right?
“Well, she’s not eating much else in Paris, not as thin as she is.” Célie wasn’t fat by any means, but she was slightly more rounded than the Parisian ideal, and judgmental of women who starved themselves for fashion. “She’s stuck on you.”
Dom struggled manfully to subdue a flush. He couldn’t say why, but he liked, quite extraordinarily, the idea of Freckled Would-be Audrey Hepburn being stuck on him.
“You haven’t seen her run and throw anything up?” Célie checked doubtfully.
having me inside her.”
Célie made an odd gurgling sound and looked up at him with her eyes alight, and Dom replayed what he had just said. “Will you get out of my space? Don’t you have work to do?”
“Probably about as much as you.” Célie grinned smugly, not budging.
Hardly. Nobody worked as hard as the owner. What the hell did Sylvain Marquis and Philippe Lyonnais do with employees who persisted in walking all over them? How did this happen to him?
was the biggest, ugliest customer in the whole world of Parisian chocolate, and yet in his own
—this was what he had to put up with.
Célie waggled her eyebrows at him. “So what’s wrong with you? Are you sick? Why haven’t you gone up with your—” She braced her shoulders and swung them back and forth, apparently trying to look macho and aggressive. She looked ridiculous. “We could cover for you for a couple of hours.”
She tried to treat it like a joke, the way Dom could walk up to a woman, his aggression coming off him in hard edges all over the place, and have that woman get up and disappear with him for a couple of hours. But a profound disapproval lurked in her brown eyes.
Dom set his jaw. His sex life was really
business, even if it was infamous, and, well—“
Go start on the
before I make you come in at three a.m. tomorrow to do them.”
For a wonder, Célie actually started to move. She got three steps away before she turned back. “You haven’t had sex with her already, have you? Finally broken someone’s heart, and now she’s lurking here like a ghost, snatching at your crumbs?”
Dominique stared at her. “Broken her—ghost—crumbs—what the
do you guys make up about me when I’m not in earshot?” He never had sex with women who had hearts. Not ones that beat for him, anyway.
“Nothing. We contemplate possible outcomes of your actions,
but I think we’re pretty realistic about it.” Célie gave him her puckish grin and strolled a couple more paces away. Naturally, his breath of relief was premature, and she turned back for one last shot. “Now if we were
we might have come up with this scenario.” She waved a hand at Dom, wedged in a corner between glass and stone, gazing down into his
Whatever the hell that meant.
He blocked Célie’s face from the edge of his vision with a shift of one muscled shoulder and focused back on the freckled
she had left.
Cancer, he thought that night, with a chill of fear. Maybe that explained the hats or hoods or scarves that always hid her hair. Maybe that explained the thinness, and the way she seemed able to just sit still forever, soaking up his life.
He started preparing her plates himself, arranging whatever she had ordered to his satisfaction and then adding in little surprise presents: a miniature tower of three of his square
for example, fresh from the ganache room where trays of them were scattered on wire shelves, waiting to replenish the displays below.
He went to his secret spot, in the corner of the glass walls above the
to see her reaction. She didn’t smile. But she bit into them slowly, taking her time, eating the tiny morsels in two, sometimes even three bites, as if she wanted to savor every aspect of his flavor. The texture of him on her tongue.
And when she was done with him—with
with the chocolates—she always left. Rising. Brushing crumbs off her lap if she had had one of his famous chocolate
. Laying down cash, never once paying with a card so he could know her name.
Was it just his imagination, or was her boniness softening, from the week of absorbing him?
The sixth day, he broke cover, moving suddenly out of his observation post when he saw her rise. His feet sounded too loud, too violent on the polished metal spiral that descended into the room. He was only halfway down by the time she reached the door. She didn’t look back toward the sound. She stood as the glass doors slid open for her, and her shoulders shifted in a sigh. And then she was gone, out on the street.
Guillemette and both waiters were eyeing him, eyebrows raised. He turned abruptly on his heel and went back up into his
The seventh day, he almost wanted to open the shop, even though they never opened on Monday, because—what would she do? Where would she go without him?
He resisted his own foolishness and then spent the entire day off roaming restlessly around Paris, sometimes on his motorcycle, sometimes on foot, visiting all the tourist spots, which was ridiculous. Sure, a man should take the time to appreciate his city and not leave it all to tourists, but the odds of spotting someone in the Louvre when you didn’t even know if she was there were . . . pretty nearly none. Standing looking up at
La Victoire de Samothrace
and as she soared above the crowds in the Richelieu wing of the Louvre inspired him, though, made flavors and textures shift and flow in his mind, tease his palate, as he tried to think of a chocolate that he could call
La Victoire de Samothrace
. The flowing, exultant winged marble would have represented the essence of his soul, if only he could purify it of all its darkness and make it that beautiful.
After the Louvre, he even went up the Eiffel Tower, which he hadn’t done since a school trip at age ten. He climbed the first two floors on foot, up and up, taking pleasure in the eventual protest of his thighs, and looked down from it at the whole of Paris. His city. He may once have been this city’s outcast, but he had made Paris his.
He liked the Eiffel Tower. All those years it had been shining over his city, and he had never until now realized that. He liked the impossible, fantastical strength of it, the way the metal seemed so massive up close. He liked the fact that it had risen above all the complaints and criticism that surrounded its birth and stamped its power not only over the city but the world. He pulled out the little moleskin journal he always carried with him and stood for a long time sketching the curves and angles of the bolts and metal plates, thinking of designs for the surface of his chocolates.
From the railing, he eyed the tiny figures milling around the Champ de Mars wistfully. He didn’t know why he was looking for her. She was too thin and too fragile for him, although something about her conversely exuded strength. He didn’t even know what color her hair was, and—her features were quite lovely, with the blue eyes and over-full, wide mouth, too full for her thin face; the thick pale dust of freckles entirely charmed him. But . . . there were any number of women with lovely features in his
at any one time. There was no reason for her to stand out at all, except the way she sat there, too thin, so quiet, hidden in hoods and draping spring sweaters, pulling all the essence of him into her body as if it was the only thing she wanted to do with her life.