His Christmas Feast (Rainbow Cove Christmas, #1)
One gourmet party. Four potential couples. The taste of love?
After his girlfriend runs off with another man, French chef Christophe Duval swears to stay away from women. That all changes when his sexy neighbour Emily Brighton turns up at the lavish Christmas party he throws at his country home in Marandowie. The trouble is, Emily is the queen of mixed signals and Christophe is along for a rollercoaster ride like no other. Will he ever understand her? Will he ever tame her? Or will the fence they set out to build between their two properties keep them apart for good?
As Christophe wiped down his outdoor table in preparation for the Christmas party, he caught a glimpse of his neighbour’s golden curls above the fence and his heart skipped a beat. Should he say something to her? Would she turn with contempt if he did, or gaze at him with those angelic hazel eyes and offer him a smile that would light up his world better than any shiny decorations? He never knew what to expect with the gorgeous twenty-four year old who lived next door. By the time he’d decided to shout out ‘Merry Christmas’ she’d disappeared.
It was probably just as well.
He had plenty to do and needed to stay focused. Emily was capable of ruining his mood with one word, so staying away from her, especially on a day like today, was highly recommended. He hurried back inside and set out to make the filling for his dessert, a bûche de Noël in the tradition of the Christmas logs served in France. He whisked together butter, icing sugar and vanilla, before gently folding in the raspberry purée he’d made. His guests expected nothing less than a fabulous lunch from a French chef and he wouldn’t let them down.
Besides, he was determined to spoil all the lonely souls he’d invited, the friends, acquaintances and friends of friends who would otherwise spend the holiday alone. This would be a Christmas to remember, a day without regrets or sadness, he’d make sure of it. For them and for him.
As he spread the sweet-scented mixture on the génoise he’d baked, the front flyscreen door banged shut. Someone had let themselves in and Christophe smiled at the ease and freedom of living in Marandowie. There weren’t too many places in the world where you could still leave your front door open without a worry.
‘Chris? You presentable?’
He recognised Joe immediately. ‘In the kitchen. Naked but it doesn’t matter.’
‘I’ll leave the veggies in the entrance, then.’
Christophe chuckled at the embarrassment in the young farmer’s voice. There was nothing like a laugh in the morning, and he loved to tease Joe, who had a few preconceived ideas about the French, one of them being that they had a predilection for nudity. ‘Just kidding. I’m dressed.’ In the most informal way—barefoot, in shorts and a T-shirt—but it was enough, another thing he loved about living in Australia.
Joe appeared carrying a huge box of vegetables as if it were a feather and slid it across the kitchen bench. ‘You had me worried there, mate.’
‘That was the point. Give me a second.’ With the help of the tea towel under his cake, Christophe quickly rolled the dessert into a log. ‘I’ll decorate it later.’
‘Wow! I’d have turned that into chook feed. You’re damn good with your hands.’
‘Shame it’s not a pretty girl telling me so.’ He said that, but he didn’t really mean it. Women were problems. He placed the dessert in the fridge.
‘With that accent of yours, I don’t think you’d have any trouble finding one if you wanted to.’ Joe winked. ‘Brought ya lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, capsicum, a whole heap of stuff. Even fresher than when I cart it up to the restaurant.’
‘Thanks, Joe. If you’re not careful with that ocker accent of yours, you, on the other hand, are going to scare away all the women. You don’t have to lay it on that thick, you know?’ Christophe couldn’t understand it. Joe was young, good-looking, educated, charming even, but he always pretended to be nothing like it. Maybe he wanted to sound tough. Or maybe it was his way of saying with every breath he took that he belonged here in the Australian country, the way the Bretons back where Christophe was from celebrated their roots every day with their music and food.
Joe shrugged. ‘Me, an accent, mate? I haven’t the faintest idea what you mean. You must be thinking about some other drongo.’
Christophe piled up the salad vegetables on the sink, ready to be washed, although they could wait. It was too early to chop them all up. They’d oxidise and turn brown before it was time to eat. And he had other things to do in the meantime: set the table, organise the drinks, make the orange and ginger sauce that would turn the turkey and chestnuts into a sublime main course.
‘So who did you invite in the end? Everyone we talked about?’ Joe rested his sunburnt forearms on the bench top and leaned forward, such concentration on his face that he seemed ready for state secrets.
‘Let’s see. My mate Jago. Nico, the new kitchen hand. Both great guys.’
‘I’m more interested in the ladies. Zoe? Elizabeth?’
‘Yep. And Flick. You know, Felicity.’
‘With her stuck-up guy.’
‘Nobody’s perfect. And he’s the man who owns the walls of my restaurant.’
Joe cleared his throat. ‘Marta?’
Joe rubbed his nose and grinned. ‘Okay. What about Emily? Did you invite her?’
At the mention of her name, Christophe automatically glanced at her house through his kitchen window and there she was, probably pottering around under her verandah now, her pretty head of curls shining in the morning light the only thing he could see over the old fence. His stomach tightened—with what? Angst, excitement, he wasn’t sure …
Whatever it is, it makes me feel like a teenager.
He quickly turned his attention back to Joe.
‘Invite who?’ Feigning ignorance seemed to be the best approach. Granted, Emily had assets most men would fight, lie, even kill for, but she’d been nothing but obnoxious to Christophe and it was just as well.
‘For goodness sake, Chris, Emily Brighton, your neighbour. The optician. If you haven’t noticed her maybe you should go get your eyes checked, although she’s on holidays at the moment.’
‘Oh, that Emily. Why? You interested in her?’
‘Nah, course not. Not like that. I’ve known her way too long. We used to play together as kids. She was still in her nappies and I wasn’t long out of mine. Got up to all sorts together a few years later, hiding her mother’s groceries, taking the mail out of letterboxes and putting it into others.’ He dropped his gaze to the floor, chuckling at the memory. ‘She’s a nice girl. And she’s on her own. Everyone around here knows that. You do too, right?’
A nice girl? She was as pretty as they come. Sexy as hell, too. But nice? On what planet did Joe live? ‘She hasn’t exactly warmed to me.’
‘Heard you’re fighting over fixing the fence.’
‘Something like that.’ In fact they seemed to fight over anything and everything the minute they opened their mouths. Especially the past few times he’d been in Marandowie.
‘It’s your party, Chris. I suppose you know what’s best. Must be strange listening to a bunch of people having a good time next door on Christmas Day when you’re sitting there all alone in her circumstances, though. I’m just saying.’
Christophe sighed. The whole purpose of the party was to make sure no one around him felt left out on Christmas Day. He couldn’t take enough time off to fly home to be with his parents and brothers like he had last year. He could barely bring himself to think about them, it pained him so much to be away from them for the festive season. That was the price to pay for living in the Lucky Country. If he’d had to spend his second Christmas here all alone it would have broken his heart, so he understood all too well what Joe meant about Emily.
Still, there had to be a limit. Christophe wasn’t the only one involved. Inviting someone as touchy as the young woman next door had the potential to spoil the party not just for him, but for everyone. He’d seen it before: one person with the wrong attitude was capable of ruining the day, and if anyone was capable of the wrong attitude, it certainly was his belligerent neighbour. He wasn’t the one to blame. She had made her own bed by being so incredibly difficult, at least around him.
Joe grabbed the empty vegetable box. ‘See ya around noon, then?’
‘Great. I wonder if anyone will recognise you, all dressed up.’
‘Oh, yeah. About that … I’m only comfortable in work boots or these.’
Christophe looked down at the worn thongs that protected the farmer’s tanned feet and smiled. ‘Do your best, Joe. Whatever that turns out to be will be fine by me.’
He listened to Joe whistle his way through the kitchen, into the lounge room and out of the house. Christophe checked his watch, then opened the oven. The turkey was roasting nicely, an even, crisp brown skin forming all over. He basted it and carefully collected some of the juices, spooning them into a saucepan, to serve as a flavoursome base for the orange and ginger sauce.
Next, he lined up the ingredients for the sauce. He squeezed garlic through a press and fried it with ginger. He added butter and cornstarch and, once absorbed, honey, water and his favourite part: a good cup of Cointreau. He poured the liqueur and held up the bottle to the light. There was hardly any left! It had slipped his mind to stock up on it. Luckily, he had enough for the sauce and plenty of other alcohol in his drinks cabinet for after lunch digestifs.
Soon the tangy, mouth-watering scent filled the house. He especially loved this sauce when he added spice. He hesitated. Some people couldn’t take the heat. But a small amount would really lift it.
He turned off the cooker—although he’d only be a few seconds, he couldn’t risk burning the sauce—and headed down the back to his herb patch in search of a mild, red chilli. Nothing spiced things up quite like … Emily! There she was again, this time down at the back of her garden, where Christophe could see her through the broken fence.
Her perfect curves danced under her thin nightdress as she leaned forward and watered her geraniums in the cool of the day. Suddenly, and somewhat against his will, he imagined himself tearing off the simple black and white strappy nightie in a flash of sweat and sweetness and excitement and … Bon Dieu! He let out a sigh.
She glanced up at him and froze, like a deer surprised in the forest by an unexpected hiker. As she came back to life seconds later, her expression hardened. She mumbled something unintelligible to herself, or perhaps to him, before hurrying inside.
‘Excuse me,’ he shouted to make sure she heard him, ‘but this kind of thing wouldn’t happen if you let me replace the fence.’ Or if she put on some decent clothes when she was planning on heading out into the garden. Not that he was complaining about the sight of her sun-kissed skin.
As he pulled a small chilli off a bushy plant, Emily reappeared, this time in a loose T-shirt and an old pair of tracksuit pants. Talk about self-sabotage. She couldn’t find anything more unflattering if she tried. Perhaps that was the point. She kept the worst of herself just for him. Well, she’d failed if she was trying to make herself look repulsive. She’d at least have to put a paper bag over that pretty face and those loose, golden curls.
She stomped up to Christophe and stopped, tight-lipped, her eyes filled with blame.
‘It’s not my fault,’ he blurted out before she accused him of something. Knowing her, she’d say he was stalking her. ‘You’re the one who didn’t get dressed.’
‘You’re never in the garden this early.’
‘I have things to do today.’
‘You crept up on me. Did you know I was watering my plants in my nightie? Thought you’d get an eyeful, is that it? I bet. You men are all alike. If you think my knees are wobbling just because you’re called Christophe Duval and are dark and handsome, think again.’
‘Get an eyeful? That’s ridiculous! I had to pick a chilli in my own garden. Is there a law against that? Am I supposed to fumble my way down to the herb garden wearing a blindfold? Wait a minute, you think I’m handsome? Dark and handsome?’ It wasn’t how he pictured himself.
‘You eat chilli in the morning? Is that what the French do, Christopher?’ She insisted on the final ‘r’, squinting as she watched him attentively. ‘You’re scowling, Monsieur. That will give you premature wrinkles. Oh, dear, I’m getting on your nerves first thing in the morning.’
And not just any morning: Christmas morning, a day for peace and good will. Mind you, Emily was particularly capable when it came to annoying the hell out of him any day of the year—he had to give her that. ‘No, I don’t eat chilli for breakfast, Emily. It is not what the French do, generally speaking. It’s Christophe not Christopher, as I’ve told you a hundred times and you’re …’
He looked into those big almond-shaped eyes of hers and lost the end of his sentence. He had to remind himself how painful she was. ‘It has nothing to do with annoying me or not. I frown when I concentrate and I’m concentrating on cooking, that’s all. I’m busy preparing a Christmas lunch. Voilà.’
‘Oh là là, a Christmas lunch. You’re having people over.’
‘Yes, people. I didn’t invite any dogs.’
A smile lit up her face. ‘That’s actually quite funny. You surprise me. The French aren’t known for their humour.’
‘Thank you. I think.’
Suddenly, the warmth left her expression. ‘Wait a minute. You’re not calling me a dog or more precisely a bit—’
‘No! I wouldn’t. I said dogs as opposed to people. I could just as easily have said elephants.’
‘And now you’re calling me fat.’
‘Fat? Excuse me?’
What on earth was she talking about?
‘I am not an elephant. I may not be a rake-thin model but I am proud of this body and you are not going to shame me. Women are beautiful in all shapes and sizes.’
‘Of course.’ Stunned, Christophe watched her stomp back up the garden path. Once again their conversation had turned sour faster than milk in the sun. He couldn’t figure it out. He couldn’t figure her out. All he’d expected was a brief conversation about Christmas, a few polite words, maybe even best wishes for the special day.
He shook his head as he returned inside where the caramelised orange scent wafted through the air. He wouldn’t have her believe that he was an arrogant Frenchman who’d called her names on Christmas Day. He’d change her perception one way or another, simply for the pleasure of proving her wrong.
He was too busy right now, but maybe he’d drop by with a box of chocolates or a tin of Christmas tea tomorrow. Boxing Day was for giving boxes of things, wasn’t it? He thought so, although he could be wrong about that. There was no such thing as Boxing Day in France. In his country, the day after Christmas was for nursing your stomach and catching up on sleep.
It was probably better to get it over and done with. If he was feeling brave and there was still time, he’d make an effort and call in quickly to see Emily later this morning, once he’d finished the food preparations. Five minutes was all he needed to chit-chat with her and smooth things over.
Actually, that would be four minutes too many.
The table sparkled with silver gumnuts, the turkey felt firm but not hard when pressed, and the mini-quiches and vol-au-vents he’d made from scratch looked inviting on their shiny trays. He had forty minutes to spare, plenty of time to shower and change and even put his feet up and sip a glass of red for a while to relax before the party started.
He clicked his tongue. What about Emily? He really ought to go over and make peace with her. It was Christmas, a time to be pleasant with everyone.
But he wasn’t foolish enough to invite her to lunch. He hadn’t changed his mind about that. No poison at his table, thank you very much.
He chose a bottle of Pinot Noir, tied a red bow around it and walked over, through his big front garden and around the corner block to her entrance. No going through a little gate between the two properties like a few people had installed around here, to make it easier for neighbours to visit on these sprawling semi-rural blocks.
That was one thing he was sure of: there was no gate between his and Emily’s homes, no bridge between the two of them, no connection at all. It’d be a miracle if she let him replace the horrible, broken fibre-cement fence that separated their houses with the same wooden panels he had on all other three sides of his property, let alone put in a gate.
When he reached her front door, he knocked and waited. He wouldn’t dare walk right in, the way Joe had done that morning at Christophe’s; he could imagine the welcome reserved to him if he did. There was no answer, so he knocked again. That was strange. Emily’s car was there.
He stood silently and listened. Soft footsteps, a breath. She was home, waiting behind the closed door. Did she know it was him? He cleared his throat. ‘It’s Christophe.’
What was that muffled sound in response? It reminded him of an injured animal. Perhaps it was something on TV. ‘Christophe from next door. Emily? I won’t hold you up on Christmas Day. I just came to, uh, say a few words.’
There it was again, a strange, soft noise, but this time he realised what it was: a woman crying. Emily, his tough, independent, invincible neighbour, was shedding tears. Was that possible?
She had seemed upset in the garden, it was true, and she appeared to believe that he’d insulted her … Had he done this to her, and on Christmas Day? Guilt tightened his stomach.
‘Is everything okay, Emily?’ He hesitated. If it was his doing, he’d fix it. ‘I’m sorry for what I said earlier.’
‘Which part?’ her voice cracked.
‘The part where I … where you … whichever part you like. All of it. It came out all wrong. I certainly wasn’t calling you a dog or an elephant. I meant I’d invited people, just people and …’ He cleared his throat. ‘I was hoping to make you laugh because, well, it’s Christmas and it is highly recommended not to fight on Christmas Day. Please open the door.’
He knew that asking wouldn’t necessarily make it happen. If Emily had decided she didn’t want to see him, then she wouldn’t, no matter what he said, so after a few seconds of staring at the handle in the hope that it would turn, he placed the bottle on the doormat and started up the garden path.
The door clicked.
‘I’m going to need this today.’
He turned around. Emily had stepped outside and was holding the bottle of red in one hand. Her swollen eyes sent a pang of compassion straight to his heart. If he didn’t know better he’d wrap his arms around her and hold her against him until he saw her smile.
Her lips curled up, as if she’d read his mind. ‘Don’t worry. You’re not the one who upset me.’
Is there someone in her life, after all? A difficult boyfriend who gives her a hard time? He bit his lip.
‘I brought this on myself,’ she said looking away. ‘I made a promise to do something by the end of the year and I failed miserably. But then, it was to be expected. Set yourself impossible tasks and you are bound to fail.’ She held up the bottle and waved it around a little. ‘Thanks. I suppose I should say Merry Christmas.’
‘You’re welcome. Merry Christmas to you. And there’s still time.’
‘It’s not the end of the year. There’s time to do that thing you want to do.’
She sighed. ‘Not enough for what I had in mind. But hey, today I have a roof over my head, blue skies, a neighbour good enough to bring me a bottle of wine.’
He hesitated. Maybe Joe was right. Maybe under her steel exterior Emily was a nice woman. And if not, what the heck? It was only a meal and if she was out of line, he’d stand up to her. ‘Listen, it’s very late notice, and I understand if you’d rather not, but if you’re free today and you’d care to join us for lunch, I’d be delighted. No fence disputes mentioned, I promise. It’s just a bunch of friends who weren’t otherwise doing anything and, to tell you the truth, some of the guests are new acquaintances. Joe is coming though. You know Joe Marshall.’
‘I sure know Joe. But I don’t want to crash your party.’
‘It wouldn’t be crashing it.’
She gave him a look of disbelief. ‘Actually, I am doing something today anyway, so …’
His shoulders dropped with disappointment. It made no sense. It was better if she didn’t come, much better. He wasn’t going to invite her in the first place yet now, somehow, he wanted her to join him. No, he was dying for her to join him. Listening to her sob and seeing her there with reddened eyes, her shoulders rolled in, had wiped the slate clean, washing away all the animosity that had ever existed between them.
For how long remained to be seen.
‘If your plans fall through, it’s drinks at noon. We’ll eat around one pm. And we’re dressing up for the occasion. That said, I doubt if Joe will wear shoes.’
She chuckled. ‘Why doesn’t that surprise me?’
He couldn’t help but laugh with her, not because of what they’d said, but because her giggle was contagious. And light. And lovely. If only she could be like that all the time. Most of the time. Half the time. He’d settle for that.
‘I’d better go and get ready.’
She nodded, so with a wave of the hand he left her.
Back home, as he lathered the soap up in the shower, he went over and over the conversation with Emily, wondering if she’d accept his invitation.
He probably hadn’t said the right words to make her want to join him. If your plans fall through? Whose plans fall through on Christmas Day? And no wonder she felt she’d be crashing the party. Nobody asks you to a Christmas lunch less than an hour before it starts.
The only response possible from his beautiful, crazy neighbour was ‘no’ and yet slowly, somewhat reluctantly, now that he’d seen her softer side and the incredible warmth in her smile, Christophe admitted to himself how very much he would have liked her to say ‘yes’ just this once.