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?

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What readers are saying

“It was a lovely story. This is the second of Ms. Clarke’s works I’ve read, and again there were intelligent, adult characters. That doesn’t mean that they don’t make mistakes. That means they own up to them and try to find a middle path. They’re grownups. I can’t tell you how refreshing that is.” – Marilyn at Mean Fat Old Bat

“Maybe it’s the hopeless romantic in me but man did I enjoy this book. It involved all my favourite things, romance, a hot guy and food. Seriously could you get anything better in this story? I think not.” – Kayleigh at K-Books

“One of the worst books I have read. Dull and stupid. Wasted 99 cents for 86 pages of drible.” – Anonymous at B&N

Excerpt

“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.

“Enjoy tonight.”

“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?”

“Mmm.”

“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.

Table for One
February 2012
Entangled
12,000 word short story
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