Table for One
When food critic Claudia Thomas gets dumped on Valentine’s Day, she finds herself occupying a table for one at London’s hottest new restaurant. If her job wasn’t on the line, she’d skip the whole affair, but her editor’s waiting for a review—and with luck, an interview with sexy chef Ward Nicholls.
Ward, intrigued by the single woman in a restaurant full of couples, sets out to tease her palate. Claudia has never tasted anything so luscious as the special meal Ward prepares for her, but when the seduction moves from the restaurant to his bedroom, Claudia discovers the only thing more tempting than his food is the chef himself.
Their connection is instantaneous, sizzling, and spicy—until Claudia comes clean about her job, reopening a wound Ward had thought long-healed. Could one accidental lie of omission end a delicious relationship before it even has a chance to start?
© 2012 Ros Clarke
“You’re breaking up with me? Today?”
Claudia stared at Andrew in disbelief. As far as she was concerned, she and Andrew had the perfect setup. He was a charming dinner companion and a very satisfactory bed companion. “Why would you do that? Why now?”
He cleared his throat. “Things haven’t been right between us for a while.”
Huh. “You can’t break up with me today.”
“Why not today?” He frowned. “Why would you want to go on pretending everything is okay? Especially on Valentine’s Day.”
“Because it’s Valentine’s Day!” She shook her head. “And we have a reservation at Ward’s.”
“Do we? You never said.” For a moment, she thought he might be reconsidering. Ward’s was the latest restaurant to be awarded two highly coveted Michelin stars, and reservations had to be made months in advance.
“It was supposed to be a surprise.” Genevieve, Claudia’s editor at Galaxy magazine, had only told her about it last week.
His eyes narrowed suspiciously. “And?”
She shrugged. She had been planning to pretend it was her treat, but it didn’t matter now. “And I’m reviewing it for the magazine.” No need to mention to Andrew that the hotshot young chef at Ward’s had recently made it to seventh place on a list of the Sexiest Men in London.
“I’m sure you’ll find someone else to go with you.”
“It’s Valentine’s Day. Everyone I know already has a date. I thought I did, too,” she snapped.
“I could still go with you,” Andrew offered. “We could spend the evening sharing stories of how much we irritate each other.”
She laughed. “I’m not sure that would be a good idea. I might throw my soup at you.”
“You never have the soup.”
“You actually noticed.”
“Yes. I really am sorry things didn’t work out between us.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Which was almost true. If he’d told her tomorrow, it wouldn’t have mattered.
“I might not go.”
“You’ll go. You’ve got to write the review, remember?”
He kissed her cheek and said good-bye.
Claudia closed the door behind him and leaned against it. Damn.
She’d have to do it. Any other night she might have called a few friends and headed out to drown her sorrows and scout a replacement, but tonight she had a job to do. Genevieve had been hinting recently that the magazine might be looking for a higher profile restaurant critic. A celebrity who knew nothing about food, Claudia guessed. A name to bring in fresh readers. This review of Ward’s—with a picture of Ward himself—would be a great way for Claudia to show she was worth keeping on.
But a woman dining alone on Valentine’s Day would attract attention. Claudia was fine with attention, but she wouldn’t let anyone pity her—or worse, hit on her. The low-cut, tight-fitting, black-velvet sheath dress she’d planned to wear for her date with Andrew wouldn’t work at all. Instead, she picked out a midnight blue silk jersey dress, which fell modestly to just above her knees and draped softly around her breasts without revealing too much. She clipped several bangles onto her wrists and added a necklace of dark, glittery jet. She took similar care with her makeup, then grabbed a black clutch bag and slipped on a pair of killer heels to complete the look. Smart, sophisticated, sexy but not seductive. Perfect for an evening that was purely business.
Ward dotted dark, glossy balsamic reduction around the venison terrine, arranged the slices of rye bread neatly on the side, and slid the finished plates across the counter. Without pausing, he reached up to pull the next order from the rack as he turned back to the ovens. He glanced at the note, frowned, and called over his shoulder, “Table for one?”
“Yes, chef. Table was booked for two, but the lady’s companion couldn’t make it.”
Ward dismissed the waiter with a nod and detoured via the walk-in fridge. He couldn’t serve the Valentine’s Night menu to a woman who’d been stood up. She didn’t need food to fall in love to. She needed food to make her feel fabulous. He had just the thing in mind.
“Compliments of the chef, ma’am.”
Claudia looked at the small plate in front of her. This didn’t resemble anything on the lengthy tasting menu she’d been given.
“What is it?”
“Langoustines with a chili-ginger dip.” The waiter’s voice was as neutral as his expression.
The shellfish looked deliciously plump, and her mouth watered at the tangy scent of the dip. “Thank you.”
She used her fingers to peel the shellfish, extracting the soft pink flesh and dipping it into the sauce. The first taste sent her reeling. Salty and sweet, with a perfect balance of fiery flavors, it filled her mouth with explosive sensations. Claudia slowly worked her way through the next two langoustines, giving each taste a chance to settle on her palate before she set off the fireworks again with the next bite. Incredible.
At times like this, she had the best job in the world.
In a brilliantly run restaurant like Ward’s, waiters appeared as if by magic at precisely the right moment. One came to remove Claudia’s plate and the accompanying finger bowl. A few moments later, another brought a Chinese-style white porcelain spoon, filled with a single scoop of sorbet. He laid it on a chilled silver charger that would prevent the sorbet from melting instantly.
“To cleanse the palate, ma’am.”
Claudia glanced around the room. At every table, oysters on the half shell sat on the ice sculptures advertised in the menu. No doubt hers would follow after the sorbet. Sorrel sorbet, she guessed, with a hint of lemon. Deliciously refreshing without overpowering. Not what she was expecting, but exactly what she’d needed. She discreetly opened her smartphone and made a few notes for the review.
Claudia’s eyebrows rose when the waiter placed the next dish on the table. A pile of deep-fried leeks topped with a seared scallop and a wobbly poached quail’s egg was placed in front of her.
“Has the kitchen run out of oysters?”
The waiter smiled politely and shook his head. “No, ma’am. The chef thought you would prefer this.”
She stared at him. “The chef?”
“Yes, ma’am. He thinks the other menu is not suitable for you.”
“Not suitable?” Claudia shook her head. “Why would he think that?”
“Because you are dining alone, ma’am.”
Oh. She looked back at the plate. It smelled incredible and it looked delicious. The chef was quite right—she would prefer not to eat oysters alone, but she was here to review the restaurant. She always had the set menu when she was working. It was the fairest way of assessing what ordinary customers would be served.
“You may inform the chef, with my compliments, that I will have the menu as advertised, no matter what his views on the matter are.”
“Of course, ma’am. Should I take this away?”
She eyed the scallop regretfully. “Yes.”
“She sent it back?” He didn’t shout. Ward Nicholls never shouted. He didn’t need to shout to get the very best out of his staff. He found that a quiet, measured tone was enough to have them quivering with obedience.
“Yes, chef. She asked for the advertised menu.”
“Damn fool.” Ward took the plate and threw its contents into the nearest bin. The egg was already ruined; he’d have to cook the dish again. He gathered a replacement set of ingredients, working swiftly and precisely. “She’s not allergic to the scallop?”
“She didn’t say so.”
“Huh.” He threw a fresh handful of julienned leeks into a pan of hot oil and dropped a quail’s egg into another pan full of simmering water. Just before they were ready, he selected the plumpest, freshest scallop to sear on the grill.
When the plate had been recreated exactly, the waiter braced himself to return with it.
“I’ll take it myself,” Ward said curtly.
“It’s polite to at least try a dish before sending it back to the kitchen.”
Claudia looked up to see a tall man in chef’s whites glaring down at her. Ward Nicholls was as handsome in the flesh as he was in print. Even when he was angry. His strong jaw jutted out over the mandarin collar of his chef’s jacket and his blue eyes glittered in challenge. Evidently he was a man accustomed to getting his own way.
She eyed him coolly. “It’s polite to serve a customer what she’s ordered.”
He shrugged. “It’s polite to serve her what she wants. Try it.”
He’d brought another scallop, another egg, another pile of leeks. Her taste buds cried out to sample it.
“You enjoyed the langoustines,” he murmured, his voice as sexy as his unshaven jaw. “And the sorbet.”
She had savored every bite of the langoustines and each spoonful of the sorbet. And now she craved the scallop and quail’s egg.
Ward drew around a spare chair to sit beside Claudia, and used her knife and fork to put together a mouthful of all the elements on the plate. Silently, he offered it to her.
He was close enough that she could smell sweet herbs and the tang of fresh lemon clinging to his skin. Close enough that she could see the tension in his brow and the darker roots of his blond hair. Close enough that she forgot all about the job she was supposed to be doing.
“Try it,” he invited.
The food. He was asking her to try the food. Not to try the taste of his lips against hers. That would be ridiculous. She didn’t even know this guy. She mustered sufficient self-control to simply open her mouth and let him feed her in a gesture that felt even more intimate than a kiss.
Soft and sensuous, this dish was all about the contrasting textures. Velvety egg yolk clung to the luscious scallop, a counterpoint to the crispy strands of leek. Instinctively, Claudia whimpered for more. Ward chuckled, but she forgave him when he gave her another taste of ambrosia.
There was a dark, earthy aftertaste to the dish. “Truffle oil,” she murmured between mouthfuls.
“Very good. More?”
“That’s the last,” he said. “Now, about those oysters. Do you still want them?”
She shook her head. “No oysters.” She didn’t need an aphrodisiac. Not when Ward Nicholls was looking at her like that.
“According to the menu, chilled watercress soup.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll send out something else for you.” He picked up her empty plate and left without waiting for her consent.
She slumped back in her chair and wondered what had just happened to her. What could she say in her review? The scallop was delicious, especially when served by the sexiest man she’d ever met. If he were the Seventh Sexiest Man in London, what on earth were the top six like? They probably gave women spontaneous orgasms on sight.
Ward hadn’t so much as touched a finger to her skin. He hadn’t needed to. Not when he fed her food like it was foreplay.
“Connie, you’ll take over service.”
Ward had a new plan for the night, involving the woman at table seventeen and a Valentine’s Day seduction. Judging by the way she’d enjoyed the scallop, she’d be practically falling into bed with him by the end of the meal. It had been a long time since he’d cooked for a woman with the goal of seducing her, and never for a customer. But it was Valentine’s Day and she was alone. So was he. He’d cook a meal for her that she would appreciate, and then they could both see where it led.
He selected an aged Parmesan cheese, grated a small heap of it onto a baking sheet, and slid it into the oven. He’d been impressed that she could recognize the distinctive flavor of truffle oil from the few drops he’d added to the last dish. She had the experience to know what she was eating, but she enjoyed the food with her heart, not her mind. There was nothing Ward enjoyed more than creating food to evoke a response.
And with a woman as responsive as this one, it would be even more satisfying than usual.
Claudia dipped her spoon into a shot glass filled with chilled tomato jelly and topped with a basil-scented froth, then took a bite of the crisp parmesan wafer. The juxtaposition of salt and sweet was subtler in this dish but no less delicious. Ward followed this with a warm salad of pheasant, beetroot, and horseradish. It was comfort food, earthy and rich—unexpected but welcome after the fireworks of the first few courses.
“Is everything to your satisfaction, ma’am?”
“Delicious. My compliments to the chef.”
“Of course.” The waiter refilled her wine glass and refreshed the carafe of ice water. Claudia took a long draught of water. She needed something to steady her head if she was going to get through the rest of this meal.
A medallion of fillet steak, rare and juicy, provided a few mouthfuls of near-perfect sensual delight. She groaned aloud when she took her first bite, and she could only hope no one had noticed. The accompanying fondant potato was just as good, crisp and buttery, melting on her tongue.
Without a menu, Claudia was totally reliant on her own culinary experience to analyze the meal. She tried to make a few more notes, but in truth she could hardly remember any details of the food. She could barely picture the langoustines, but she had a vivid image of the chef’s metallic blue eyes twinkling while he fed her scallops. She couldn’t have described the delicate fragrance of the sorbet, but the scent of Ward still lingered, just as if he were sitting at the table, eating with her.
A small dish of caramelized kumquat with vanilla cream reminded her of his citrus scent. The Stilton-and-walnut cheesecake wiped all thoughts of work from her mind. Finally, just when she thought she couldn’t manage another mouthful, the waiter brought out a plate of tiny pastel-colored macarons. She was powerless to resist. Each puff of sugar dissolved in a heavenly explosion that was both crisp and chewy. Claudia would be happy if all she ever ate again were those macarons until she died of pleasure.
“You’re enjoying them, I see.”
Ward Nicholls sat opposite her. He’d taken off his chef’s jacket. He looked even better in a plain white T-shirt.
“I am,” she acknowledged. “I enjoyed it all.”
“Good. I like a satisfied customer.” He relaxed back into his chair, studying her with narrowed eyes.
She returned the favor, letting her gaze linger on the curves of his biceps and the faint outline of muscle beneath his shirt. “I imagine you only have satisfied customers.”
He shrugged. “I aim to please.”
“Are you joining me for coffee?”
“I’d like that.”
She held out her hand. “Claudia Thomas.”
“Ward Nicholls.” His grasp was firm. His touch was electrifying.
He ran a hand through his hair. “Yes.”
“Is it really your name?”
He grinned. “Nickname.”
“So your real name is?”
“A secret known only to my parents and the vicar who christened me.”
She laughed. “Is that a challenge?”
Ward shook his head. “Certainly not.”
The waiter brought their coffee to the table. Strong, dark espresso, just the way Claudia liked it. The way Ward liked it, too, it seemed. He offered her the cream, but she shook her head. She preferred to take hers black. He passed her the plate of bitter chocolate truffles instead.
Claudia bit into a truffle. It was to die for. “Did you make these?”
“My commis chef makes them. To my recipe.”
“They’re good.” They were too rich for her to manage more than one, sadly.
“I’ll tell her you said so. Why did you come here tonight?”
She blinked at the abrupt change of subject. “Um, for dinner?”
“On your own?” He sounded skeptical.
“As you see.” She glanced around the room, surprised to notice that all the other customers had left.
Ward’s eyes narrowed, darkening to a steel blue that shimmered in the soft light. “I see a beautiful woman who shouldn’t be dining alone.”
“I’m not alone now.”
“Who was he?”
“Who was who?”
“The guy you were supposed to have dinner with.”
Claudia almost laughed. She’d completely forgotten Andrew. “He broke up with me this afternoon.”
“You don’t exactly look heartbroken.”
“I’m not, but I was disappointed that I had to come out alone. Tonight of all nights.”
“Are you sorry you came?”
“I told you I enjoyed the food.”
Ward leaned forward until his mouth was close to her ear. “You didn’t just like that food, Claudia. You let it seduce you.”
He was wrong. She hadn’t just let his food seduce her; she’d let it thoroughly debauch her. And she had enjoyed every moment.
“You’re trying to seduce me?”
“Is it working?” His eyes locked on hers.
She held his gaze. “Maybe.”
“It’s not often that a woman like you walks into my restaurant.” His gaze lingered on her mouth. She shivered with pleasure.
“A woman like me?”
He grinned lazily. “Intelligent, appreciative, stunning. And single.”
Ward shook his head and sat back. “I’m out of adjectives. And frankly, I’ve been on my feet working for the last sixteen hours. If you’re not interested, you only have to say so.”
He wasn’t number seven on the list for nothing. Even with his eyes drooping with fatigue, he still sent goose bumps down Claudia’s spine with the intensity of his gaze.
Ward reached across the table and took her hand. “Great.”
“I didn’t come here tonight to find a man.” She wasn’t the kind of woman to jump into bed with any man who offered. She wasn’t desperate.
“I wasn’t expecting to find a woman tonight, either, but I’m glad I did.”
His thumb began to trace circles on the back of her hand. She gasped at the heat of his touch. Sparks skittered across her skin. She really needed to tell him now.
He covered her mouth with his, and her body exploded with the desire that had been building all night. His lips were like magic. They caught her, held her, bewitched her so she couldn’t have pulled away if she tried.
Ward must have had more willpower than she. Somehow he ended the kiss, though his mouth moved no more than an inch from hers. “My flat is upstairs,” he murmured. “Let’s go before my entire staff is watching us.”