Paris, August 1828
Though it was long past midnight, the oppressive heat of the day had not dissipated, having been trapped by the tall, elegant buildings which lined the street down which Owen Harrington wandered aimlessly. He was not exactly lost, but nor was he quite sure where he was. Having crossed to the Rive Gauche at Notre Dame some time ago, the Seine should be somewhere on his right. He thought he’d been walking in a straight line, assumed that he was headed west, but the streets of Paris, he had discovered to his cost several times in the last week, were not laid out in a neat grid. Instead they veered off-straight at an imperceptible angle, often arriving at an unexpected destination. Rather like the locals’ conversation.
He had been away from London for less than two weeks, but already felt disconnected from his life there. It had been the right decision. He was not trying to avoid the commitment his late father had made on his behalf. He planned to honour it, but he could not embrace it as his sole role in life. He still had two years grace, time to be alone to be himself, free to do as he pleased, to discover a sense of purpose that would also accommodate his father’s wishes. He had no idea what form this might take, but he was already excited by the endless possibilities waiting to be explored.
Above him the sky was inky, the stars mere pinpoints. The air, redolent of heat and dust, felt heavy, forcing him to slow his pace, encouraging him to dally. A faint beacon of light caught his attention. The lamps from a café tucked down a narrow alleyway flickered. Intrigued, for most establishments had closed their shutters hours ago, thinking a very late digestif might be just the thing, Owen decided to investigate.
The main room of the Procope Café was dark-panelled, smoke filled. Two men were frowning intently over a chess board cleared of all but five pieces. Around a large table, another group of men were disputing their bill, while a bored waiter looked on, answering Owen’s mimed request for a glass of something strong with a shrug, pointing at the ceiling. He returned to the foyer and began to climb the rather elegant staircase. The first floor was silent, the doors of the rooms, presumably private dining salons, all closed, their customers either long departed or wishing to be very private indeed. A burst of laughter lured him to the top floor. The room was built into the eaves and stretched the full length of the café. Black and white tiles covered the floor, the narrow windows were flung open to the Paris night, the red-painted walls lined with banquettes which were crammed with late-night drinkers. Lamps were hung from the rafters, their muted light giving a rosy glow to the café’s clientele – though perhaps that was the wine, Owen thought, which was in plentiful supply, with large earthenware jugs jostling for space on the tables.
No-one paid him any attention as he stood in the open doorway. It was one of the things he liked about this city, being entirely anonymous and quite alone, lurking on the fringes, listening and watching. The French were so much more garrulous than the English. They conducted conversations at top speed, using their hands expressively, talking over each other, spinning off at tangents, around in circles, but never quite losing the thread.
There were no free seats. Disappointed, he was about to leave when two young men got up from their table. He stepped out of the doorway to let them pass, but they had stopped at another table where a woman sat alone. She had her back to the room, facing one of the open windows, and had been writing in a notebook, head bent, making it clear that she had no wish to be disturbed. Though not clear enough, it seemed. The two late-night revellers were hovering over her. He could see her shaking her head forcibly. Her posture gave the impression of youth, though he couldn’t say how. Was she a courtesan? In London, there would be no doubt about it, but in Paris it seemed to be acceptable for women to dine in the cafes, to enjoy a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. Though alone, and late at night? Surely even Paris was not that decadent.
Owen looked around, but the waiter now was engaged in an altercation with one of the bill-hagglers and no-one else was taking any notice of the woman’s plight. One of the men took a seat beside her. She gesticulated for him to leave her alone. The other caught her arm. She leapt to her feet to try to free herself and was roughly pushed back down onto her chair. Owen was across the room before he was aware he’d made any decision to intervene. It occurred to him that he may well be embroiling himself in a dispute between a demi-mondaine and her clients, but it was too late to stop now, and whatever the relationship, it was clear the men’s attentions were unwelcome. Though he didn’t doubt his ability to see the pair of them off, he was not particularly inclined to get into a fist fight. Hoping that the fair damsel – exceedingly fair, he noted as he arrived at the table – would instinctively follow his lead, he greeted her with a broad smile.
‘I have kept you waiting,’ he said in French, ‘a thousand apologies ma chérie. Messieurs, I am grateful to you for keeping my little cabbage company, but now I am here, you understand that you are de trop?’
He allowed his smile to harden as he stood over them, making sure that they could see his clenched fists but making no other move. There was a moment when the decision could have gone either way but Owen knew to wait it out, and sure enough, the man at the table shrugged and got to his feet, clapping his friend on the back and nudging him toward the door.
‘Bon nuit, Messieurs,’ Owen said, standing his ground, keeping his gaze fixed firmly on the men until they had left, before turning back to the woman at the table. ‘Will you allow me, Madame, to keep you company just for a few moments, in case they return.’
‘Please, sit down. Thank you very much, Monsieur. May I offer you a glass of wine? Unless you prefer to drink alone?’
She smiled up at him tentatively, and Owen found himself gazing down into a face of quite dazzling beauty. Her hair was a rich burnished gold threaded with fire. Her eyes, almond-shaped, thickly-lashed, seemed also golden, though he supposed hazel was the more prosaic term. She had a pert nose, a luscious mouth, and the hint of equally luscious curves under the demure neckline of her dress. If he’d had a poetic bone in his body, now would be the moment to spout some verse.
He did not spout poetry and he didn’t gawk! ‘No,’ Owen said, rallying, ‘it is merely that I did not wish to intrude Madame, since you clearly do prefer to be alone.’
‘I’m waiting for someone, actually.’
‘With your permission, I would be delighted to act as your chaperone until they arrive,’ he said, taking a seat. ‘Allow me to introduce myself. I am Owen Harrington.’
‘Ah, you are English?’
‘As English as you are, judging by your French, which is excellent but not without accent,’ Owen said, reverting with relief to his native language.
‘My name is Phoebe Brannagh, and I’m actually Irish.’ She poured him a glass of wine. ‘À votre santé, Mr Harrington.’
‘À la vôtre, Mrs Brannagh.’
‘It’s Miss Brannagh.’
‘Miss Brannagh.’ He touched her glass, taking a sip of the very quaffable wine. Her voice was cultured. Her clothes were expensive, as was the little watch blue-enamelled watch she was consulting. Miss Phoebe Brannagh was most certainly not a member of the demi-monde, which made her presence here rather shocking. ‘You are waiting for a friend, a relative?’ he hazarded.
She snapped shut the watch, rolling her eyes as she returned it to her reticule. ‘He is very late. As always,’ she said ruefully. ‘I’m waiting for Monsieur Pascal Solignac.’
She enunciated the name with such reverence, Owen was clearly expected to know who the gentleman in question was. ‘I’m sorry, I’m afraid…’
‘The celebrated chef. Perhaps you’ve not been in Paris long?’
‘And you have not dined at La Grande Taverne de Londres? My goodness, where on earth have you been eating?’
‘At places like this, by and large.’
‘Oh, the Procope is all very well if you like honest hearty fare, but really, Mr Harrington, one comes to Paris to dine, not to eat. Have you heard of Monsieur Beauvilliers, the author of L’art du Cuisinier, the bible of French gastronomy? My sister bought me one of the first English editions. Monsieur Beauvilliers’ restaurant closed some years ago, following his death, but La Grande Taverne de Londres has re-opened with Pascal at the helm – Pascal Solignac, I mean. He has elevated cooking to another plane and is the talk of Paris, Mr Harrington, I can’t believe that you have not heard of him. Perhaps you prefer to drink rather than eat?’
‘I eat to live, I’m afraid I don’t live to eat, which probably makes me a culinary philistine in your eyes.’
She gave a burble of laughter. ‘I love food with a passion. If it were not for the heat of the kitchen and all the running around, and being on my feet for fourteen or fifteen hours at a stretch, I should be as fat as a pig at Michaelmas.’
‘Good lord, are you a chef?’
‘Not yet, but I hope to be someday. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to find work in Pascal’s kitchen for the last nine months. I’m on the patisserie station at the moment.’
Owen hardly knew what to make of this. ‘I’m no expert, but I’m not aware of any female chef working in a restaurant kitchen in London.’
‘It’s very unusual, even in Paris. In fact, I am the only female in the brigade.’
‘And how do the other staff react to having a beautiful woman in their midst, and English to boot – I beg your pardon, Irish – my point is that you are not French. Do they see you as a interloper?’
Once again, she laughed. ‘I have earned my stripes the hard way, peeling sacks of potatoes and chopping mountains of onions – that is a rite of passage in a professional kitchen, Mr Harrington. Fortunately, my eyes don’t water, for I’ve been chopping onions and peeling potatoes since I was this height,’ she said, touching the table top.
‘You astonish me. It is obvious from your accent that you are well-born.’
She gave a pronounced Gallic shrug. ‘Oh, I’m born well enough, I suppose, though what matters to me is not the colour of the blood in my veins but my determination to live life to the full. In that sense, I take after my mother.’
‘So she approves of your being here?’
Her face fell. ‘I believe she would, if she were alive, but I lost both my parents and my little brother six years ago. I hope she would have been proud of me, for I’ve already achieved far more than I expected in such a short time. In a restaurant kitchen, you know, a strict hierarchy exists. You have to earn your place, and any promotion. To reach patisserie in just nine months is almost unheard of. To be honest, there are days when I have to pinch myself.’
There was pride in her voice and a gleam in her eye. ‘You are obviously passionate about your chosen vocation,’ Owen said, a little enviously.
Miss Brannagh beamed. ‘It is all I’ve ever wanted, all I’ve ever dreamed of – and that’s all it was, until last year, a pipe-dream. Were it not for my sister’s generosity, I wouldn’t be here, learning from Pascal.’
Pascal. It was not only admiration that he could hear in her voice, Miss Brannagh was in thrall to her mentor. Lucky man, Owen thought. He hoped Monsieur Solignac, who he already irrationally and instantly taken a dislike to, appreciated his protégée and did not take advantage of her obvious reverence for him. ‘The same sister who gave you the famous recipe book?’
‘Yes, Eloise my eldest sister. The Countess of Fearnoch.’ Miss Brannagh chuckled. ‘Goodness, I still find it quite strange, calling her that. She made a most excellent marriage just over a year ago, which allowed her to settle a small fortune on myself and Estelle.’
‘My twin.’ Miss Brannagh’s smile softened. ‘We were a such a close-knit little group until recently – the Elmswood Coven, Estelle called us – myself, Eloise, Estelle and Aunt Kate – she is Lady Elmswood and our aunt by marriage. She very kindly took us in when we lost our parents and there we lived, cosily and very contentedly for five years, until Eloise’s wedding.’
‘I presume that the appeal of cosy and contented began to wane?’
Miss Brannagh chuckled. ‘Oh yes, but though I love Aunt Kate with all my heart, why on earth would I choose to stay in the wilds of Shropshire when I could come to Paris and chase rainbows?’
Chasing rainbows, wasn’t that exactly what he was doing, Owen thought, utterly charmed. ‘What pot of gold lies at the end of your rainbow, may I ask? Becoming the top chef in Paris?’
‘I aim to become the second best chef, and part-owner of the pre-eminent restaurant in Paris, along with Pascal.’ Mis Brannagh’s smile faded slightly. ‘The proprietor of La Grande Taverne de Londres is just a little too traditional in his thinking for Pascal, you see. Our intention is to buy him out, so that Pascal’s genius can flourish unhindered, and if he will not sell, then we will buy new premises and start from scratch together.’
‘You will not mind playing second fiddle to Monsieur Solignac, then?’
‘It will be an honour! I will never supersede Pascal, he is a – a maverick genius and what’s more, he enjoys being in the public eye – whether it is chatting to diners or talking about his menus to the press. Estelle, my twin, would excel at that sort of thing, and even Eloise – for she is so confident, and takes after Aunt Kate. But I much prefer to avoid the limelight, and am happiest behind a stove.’
‘As a lone female in a kitchen though, you must have to fight to hold your own.’
‘Oh, that is a different matter all together. The kitchen is my milieu, but I have never been confident among strangers.’
‘I am a stranger, and you seem – forgive me – perfectly at ease with me.’
She flushed. ‘You are my knight errant. Besides, there is something about you – but you think I have talked too much? I have. I do beg your pardon.’
‘I am very much enjoying our conversation. I have never met anyone like you, Miss Brannagh, you are quite unique.’
‘I’m a twin, so actually one of a pair.’
‘Are you identical twins, you and your sister?’
‘Oh no, though we look very alike. Estelle is much more talented than I. As well as being an extremely accomplished musician, she is a bit of an actress – a mimic. I’m not any sort of performer.’
‘What does she think of your ambition to become the second best chef in Paris?’
‘Estelle – oh, Estelle, I have lately realised, has a much more conventional outlook on life than I, but she’ll come round.’ She took another sip of wine, frowning slightly. ‘Do you have any sisters or brothers, Mr Harrington? No? Well, the thing about sisters is that they think they know you better than you know yourself, and in a way they do, but they can also – they assume things, you see. I am younger than Estelle by twenty minutes, which makes me officially the baby of the family, since we lost our poor little brother. They think, Estelle and Eloise, that I need protecting, that my cooking is just a hobby. They have not said so outright, indeed Eloise never would for she was determined her gift came without strings, but I know they both believe my coming here is a mistake.’
‘But you hope to prove them wrong? By the sounds of it, you are already doing so.’
‘Do you think so? I tell myself I’m doing well. In fact I know I am doing so extraordinarily well, I’ve astonished myself. I wish my sisters shared your confidence in me, but in time, they will come to see that I’ve made the right decision to flee the comfort of the nest.’
‘All the same, for one who hasn’t been abroad much in the world, to come to Paris on your own must have been a daunting prospect.’
‘A baptism of fire – the kitchen was, at any rate. But as for Paris – oh, I fell in love with Paris almost from the first moment. The way of life suits me, it is so very, very different from England. I love my sisters and Aunt Kate, but they are such strong women. I have always lived in the shadow of their low expectations, you know?’
‘I do,’ Owen agreed wholeheartedly. ‘Though I don’t have any close family, I have a reputation which I’m rather tired of living down to.’
She chuckled. ‘My own feelings exactly! I hope that Paris suits you as well as it does me, Mr Harrington. It is the most beautiful city one could ever imagine. I spend every Sunday exploring, following my nose, drinking coffee in cafes, sitting in the parks just watching people stroll. I play a game with myself,’ she said sheepishly. ‘I like to guess what their favourite foods are.’
‘And what would you guess mine would be?’
‘Rosbif, is what any Frenchman would immediately say, but you are very far from being a typical Englishman.’ She studied him, her hazel eyes gleaming like gold, her chin resting on her hand. ‘I’d say you prefer breakfast to dinner. Eggs, coddled or perhaps scrambled with cream, delicate but delicious. A ham, boiled in spices and served cold. Fresh rolls and salty butter. Coffee. Am I right?’
‘Even if you were wrong, you make it sound so delicious that I would change my preference for a dinner of venison stew immediately’
‘Now it’s your turn. What do I like to eat?’
He took the opportunity to study her as she had him, struck afresh by her lush beauty, which so perfectly complemented her charm. ‘Supper,’ he said, smiling, ‘definitely supper, at the end of a long day when you have finished serving dinner to your clientele. Asparagus with a hollandaise sauce and perhaps a lightly poached egg, and a glass of champagne. Essentially English, but with a soupcon of French flair – I know you’re Irish. How am I doing?’
She laughed. ‘I shall return the complement Mr Harrington. Even if you are quite wrong, you make me long to have it. You see, it’s a good game, isn’t it? I can while away hours playing it and don’t mind at all sitting by myself to do so. I love the fact that no-one knows who I am, far less cares. In Paris, for the first time in my life, I can be completely myself without having to consider anyone else – on my Sundays off, at any rate.’
‘You wander Paris alone?’
‘Yes, and I love it. Pascal spends his Sundays either experimenting with dishes or catching up on his sleep. Even if I wanted company, I have no acquaintances outside the kitchen, there’s been no time to make friends. But I don’t need them. It is – it is liberating, being alone after always being Estelle’s other, younger half. That sounds terrible, I love my sister – both my sisters – with all my heart and I know they are only being protective but they smother me a little and patronise me just a little too.’
‘So you want to cast off the shackles?’
‘Yes! Exactly! You do understand.’
‘I do indeed. I was thinking something similar just before I stumbled upon this café. And I’m very glad I did stumble upon it. Very glad too – if you will forgive my saying – that Monsieur Solignac is so tardy.’ Monsieur Solignac, who by the sound of it was more than just a friend to the beguiling Miss Brannagh, Owen thought, his animosity towards this maverick genius increasing. ‘I take it he does not have the wherewithal to set himself up in business?’ Owen asked,
‘No,’ Miss Brannagh answered sunnily, entirely unaware of his scepticism. ‘Pascal has the reputation, I have the financial means. That is what I call serendipity.’
Almost too good to be true from the Frenchman’s perspective, Owen thought as she took out her watch again, frowning at the time.
‘He has clearly become absorbed while practicing a new dish. It is only after service has finished that he can try out his ideas. Though the dishes he serves are exquisite, they are in essence traditional receipts tweaked with his own flourishes. Classic cuisine with a twist, so to speak, but when we have our own establishment, we will serve food such as the world has never imagined, never mind tasted.’
‘And while he creates, you must wait here patiently?’
‘Genius must be indulged,’ she said, bristling slightly. ‘And nurtured too.’
To be nurtured by Miss Phoebe Brannagh was an appealing prospect, Owen thought, regretfully. He had not felt so drawn to a woman in a long time. If only they had met under different circumstances, he’d have made a concerted effort to get to know her better. Captivating, that was the word he’d been looking for, not only in her looks, but in her outlook. She had a true joie de vivre, as if she was reaching out and embracing life – a feeling he had lost. He felt jaded, and had travelled abroad to rediscover a sense of purpose, a zest for life, a freshness. She was brave and she was bold. He admired her audacious attitude.
‘I wish you every success,’ Owen said, raising his glass. The words were a hackneyed toast, but he found that he meant them.
‘Thank you.’ Miss Brannagh touched her glass to his. He noticed her hands for the first time, the nails cut brutally short, the skin work-roughened, scored with tiny cuts and burn marks. Catching his eyes on them, she snatched them away, hiding them under the table. ‘Testament to my trade,’ she said, clearly embarrassed.
‘Testament to my lack of purpose,’ Owen said, holding up his own.
‘Goodness, you have a sculptors’ hands. Such beautifully long fingers.’
‘I don’t have an artistic bone in my body. I prefer more physical pursuits.’
Miss Brannagh sipped her wine, smiling. ‘It is so nice to converse in English, and though I love being in Paris, I do miss chatting with Estelle and Eloise and Aunt Kate. But I have talked far too much about myself. Tell me what brings you to my adopted city, Mr Harrington.’
‘Let me see if I can attract the waiter’s attention first and order us another pichet. The man seems determined to ignore me. Excuse me, but I think it might be quicker if I go and buttonhole him.’
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