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Spice Queenie

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© the author herself, Lady Disdain

 

It was more than he could handle. Working on a Sunday, the stink eye the disgruntled cooks were giving him, Emma’s sympathy that always was like vinegar in strawberry jam. Not that his life felt much like strawberry jam at the moment…

And the girl. The cherry on top of this cake that was today’s misery. The girl who showed up in the heat of the traditional weekend bustle. The girl he couldn’t get rid of now, for who could say no to Sir Wellington, the man whose gastronomic recommendations are a sort of Michelin Guide equivalent in the world of London' restaurateurs?

A blogger. An aristocrat. Twenty years old, just over five feet, just a bit less known than the Queen of England. Taking into account the target demographic, the most popular girl in the capital city. 

Of course, Will had never set eyes on her before, although Arthur killed an hour yesterday, suggesting all the places Will might know her from. He still couldn’t recall Victoria Kent from Spice Queenie, a culinary savant and the most eligible bride.

Brides were the farthest thing from his mind. As for culinary savants, he didn't trust those — they loved extreme combinations, preached nihilism when it came to recipes, and, when tasting any dish, looked like they were on the set of Eat Pray Love. Will genuinely couldn’t stand the film, because Carol adored it. Of course, she took off to find herself. Instead she found a lover whose signature dish was burnt toast and tore Augustus away from the balanced breakfasts the boy was so used to.

Not that Will made a cult of food. But honest to god, in the past two years it was the last passion he had left.

He was not going to let anybody’s flippant attitude desecrate his kitchen and his restaurant. Not even if they were a protégé of the great Arthur Wellington himself.

With this thought in mind, he crushed his cigarette, cringed from the chilly October air and dove through the back door back into Brocket Hall.

The kitchen was alive and breathing. It worked like a fit human body, with cooks for the indispensable limbs, his faithful sous chef Emma Portman for the vigorous brain giving orders to the rest of the body. Bartender Alfred was probably the liver — a big and surprisingly healthy one, considering its job description.

Will used to be the heart of the place himself. Maybe he still was but it felt like everything was driven by sheer inertia, like a body in a coma, existing but not really living.

Indulging in these philosophical thoughts, Will didn’t notice how he almost bumped into a small, elegant young woman.

“Careful,” she squeaked somewhat defiantly, recoiling from him.

The kitchen suddenly fell quiet. Knives grew silent, curt phrases of the busy cooks cut short, mid-word, no sound but the bubbling of the boiling water and the sizzling of the oil. Will’s eyes quickly swept over the unexpected obstruction.

Short dark hair, slender shoulders, a pianist’s hands, deep and expressive eyes the color of ripe blueberry. She smelled of something sweet — he caught a whiff of it when they collided, something honeysweet, something light, something matching the sun-kissed tone of her skin, her saffron polka dot blouse, the tiny speckles of curry under her nails.

“Apologies,” he smirked, making a mental note that this defiant air was nothing more than well-practiced bravado. “It’s not every day that people stand in my way in my own kitchen.”

The girl’s eyes met his. Now that the bright fluorescent light illuminated all of her face, her eyes looked like clear ice cubes in a glass of piña colada.

“My name is Victoria. Victoria Kent,” she bravely offered her hand, jerking up a small proud chin. “And you must be Mr. Lamb?”

Will nodded, squeezing her dry and a little bony palm.

“You can call me William.”

The kitchen let out a sigh of relief. A knife struck the board, slicing tender pink chicken fillet. Emma remembered where she was and picked up her speech on the proper cranberry pudding where she left off.

“Is this your first time in this kind of kitchen?” Will asked.

“It is. To be honest, it all looks a bit like… chaos?” Victoria chuckled as she looked around. “I mean, how are you supposed to figure out what’s what with everybody rushing about and making several dishes at once?”

“It comes with experience and becomes something like instinct. Arthur mentioned you want to open your own place?”

He gave her a searching look, probably prodding too much, but damn if the girl didn’t look much cleverer than he had imagined.

“Yes. It’s been my dream since I was eight.”

Victoria lit up, a delicate blush glazing over her skin in the flicker of a second, her eyes glinting with the fire of a glowing oven, her spine straightening into a truly royal posture.

“What happened when you were eight?” Will asked, wondering right away if it wasn’t a touch inappropriate coming from a man who knew her less than five minutes.

To his surprise, the girl only smiled. Her expression grew wistful, her thoughts clearly wandering back in time, to… how many years ago? Twelve? Fourteen? Dear God, she is so young. He couldn’t even begin to imagine her, this girl who looked more like a music box ballerina, managing cooks and spinning the infernal complicated and troublesome mechanism that is a restaurant.

“When I was eight,” Victoria started with the same blissful smile, “I was having a geography lesson with my favorite nanny. She was telling me of India, showing the pictures, giving the facts et cetera… My mom and my stepfather were out that night, and Louise said she would take me out to an Indian restaurant, just like that. My meals had been far from diverse and all of a sudden I discovered this whole ocean of flavors and scents. I was so enchanted with how familiar food could be transformed with just a pinch of something special. It was like magic, you know?”

Will nodded, realizing that his face in the last two minutes had the same sheepish happy expression that she had. Emma cleared her throat loudly. Obviously, everybody had dropped whatever they had been doing again and were staring at the two of them.

“So I’ve been cooking ever since,” Victoria finished, suddenly looking embarrassed.

She hesitated a little — so elegant and classy in her mix of posh glamor and youth, yet shifting from foot to foot like a five-year-old scared to be caught on her mischief.        

“Could I start today?” she said in a dry formal tone, meeting Will’s eyes again.

He caught himself thinking that he had come under her spell without even noticing it and scowled. It wouldn't do at all.

“I'm sorry, Miss Kent, but were you the Queen of England herself, I still wouldn't let you into my kitchen before I tested you.”

Fine eyebrows arched in astonishment, something new flashed in her eyes. The thrill of competition and adventure.

“No problem”, she said, jerking up her pointed chin again. “What would you like me to make?”

Before Will could answer, she went across to the row of aprons hanging on the wall. All of them were too big for her, but Victoria just pursed her lips stubbornly and rolled up the waterproof fabric, wrapping it around her narrow waist. Will heard Emma’s approving chuckle and turned his head, catching her eye.

Oh, perfect. His right hand was now on this tiny thing’s side.

Victoria was already back in front of him again, her hands washed, her nutmeg color silky locks pulled back in a bun.

“Sunday roast. Our main course this morning. You have forty minutes, Miss Kent,” declared Will with deliberate and a bit affected austerity.

“Yes chef!” came the brisk reply.

In thirty minutes, he felt lamb melting in his mouth, the notorious cranberry gently tingling his tongue, and bits of cauliflower crisp and crunchy like first December snow. The delightful flavors were flooding his body, filling each cell with inexplicable bliss. Must be the novelty. Every cook has a style of their own, and Victoria was no exception. Her dishes tasted vivid and colorful, just like herself — a bright yellow daisy among her while neighbors, busily scurrying between countertops and pots, and cooks, contented like a cat on a sunlit roof.

Of course, he hired her. Actually, as soon as he took the first bite of her roast, Will wanted to call Wellington and shower him with babbling gratitude. They might just get their star now they got her…

And he might just start having something more than coffee for breakfast. If taste was memory, then Victoria had just overwritten a couple of bad memories of his…

Chapter Text

© Lady Disdain

She had been staring at the screen for about ten minutes. The cup by her elbow run out of tea without her noticing. Dash lay across her feet snuffling quietly. Victoria was glued to the open webpage.

William Lamb sent her a friend request on Facebook.  A week had passed. Every once in a while, Victoria had half a mind to give up. Not all the time, but often enough to hate her own reflection in the mirror when washing her face in the morning and curse her lack of confidence and courage. She got tired, she got confused, and from time to time, she just screwed up. The dream of having a restaurant of her own someday now felt like such a mindless childish whim…

But she never slacked off. She eagerly threw herself at any task, though she obviously was more of a gofer for now. They trusted her with a part of the cooking process, usually something very simple. Or dishwashing. Or food labeling. She was never bored — she didn’t have time.

And yet there was a lingering feeling of vague anxiety. During the day, her head spun, her hands worked on various tasks, her eyes observed and her nose took notes. During the day, Victoria felt needed and actually learned new things. But every time she looked up at the chef, she caught his intent tranquil gaze. And she had no idea how to interpret it.

Was he pleased with her? Did he think she had been dumped on him like a sack of potatoes, nothing but a heavy burden and a waste of time? She craved his approval. Of course she did. He was an exceptional professional, the kind she hoped to be someday.

The day before she first stepped into Brocket Hall, Victoria had googled her potential boss. Relaxed and elated, light-hearted with Wellington’s farewell compliments and blessings, light-headed with wine, she set her laptop on her lap, clicking on the links, as Harriet sat next to her, giddy with airy laughter.

That was the first time she looked into those unbearably green eyes. According to his Facebook profile and the information on the London’s Restaurateurs Association website, William Lamb was a descendant of an old bloodline that crossed with the Viscounts Melbourne in some dreadfully remote generation. Born and raised in London.

Born and raised in London, he nevertheless looked like a European film star. The Facebook picture, the one Victoria had been staring at in utter fascination all night, was from a photo session for some culinary magazine: buttoned up snow-white coat, small half-smile. Prominent cheekbones, bronze skin tone, so unusual for a Brit, salt and pepper hair, eyes like a sprig of basil under the Tuscan sun. He looked like he’d stepped right off the screen of La Dolce Vita, and when she shared this thought with Harriet a few weeks previously, the older woman burst out laughing and suggested, “Don’t mix work and pleasure.”

At these words, Harriet grew sad and thoughtful, but Victoria, cheeks ablaze, alcohol burning her blood, eyes on another YouTube video, transfixed by the ease with which William had split a pomegranate in half, didn’t notice the change in her friend’s mood.

“Look who’s talking,” she said without thinking, taking a swig of the ruby red nectar from the tall glass.

“How is it going to end?”

The question hung in mid-air, all the fun evaporating fast.

But now, looking at the bright red notification icon, Victoria felt her head spin a little again, and she hadn’t had anything stronger than tea tonight. Before she could change her mind, her finger grazed the touchpad lazily, accepting the offered friendship.

She was still lost in her conflicting thoughts. Had it taken him a whole week to find her? Or had she finally done something special today, something to single her out? Or maybe he wanted to tell her off for something and didn’t want to wait till Monday? Victoria couldn’t read his emotions, while she herself was an open book to other people.

A soft pop announcing a new incoming message made the young woman flinch. The laptop bounced on her lap, sliding to the side, disturbing Dash’s sweet dreams. The dog gave a high-pitched yap and haughtily marched off into the kitchen.

Victoria pulled the laptop back up, feeling her heart was about to jump out of her chest. He messaged her. She opened the chat, her mind completely blank.

Evening! I haven’t woken you, have I? I just remembered I had to thank you for those superb sandwiches.

Victoria froze, forgetting how to breathe. With her finger still on the touchpad, the arrow trembled nervously, as if echoing the flutter of her heart. Her cheeks must look like fresh tomatoes right now.

He should not have known. How could that happen? When did he notice? He always came in early but Victoria, keen to show her professional fervor, was there even earlier. And so was Emma Portman, who hummed like a mad wild lark preparing the kitchen for another working day, while Victoria and Lamb infused themselves with coffee from enormous mugs… Oh, that was where it went wrong. The coffee.

On the first morning, she just registered that William didn’t have anything with his killer dose of double espresso. Next day, she realized he just didn’t eat in the morning at all. The day after that, Victoria carefully interrogated Emma and found out that the chef of Brocket Hall abided by a peculiar philosophy about meals. According to his philosophy, breakfast was the time when the entire family came together. For Victoria, that time was dinner, but Emma explained that this came from the irregular hours cooks work, often coming back home very late at night. Barely having finished her explanations, Mrs. Portman walked off to the other end of the kitchen. Obviously, Victoria had more questions but Emma had no intention to offer any more answers. Not for the time being anyway.

However, Victoria was smart enough not to press on with useless inquiries, and more importantly, smart enough to come to the logical conclusion — William Lamb deprived himself of breakfasts because he was lonely.

She was not sure how she got this insane idea. She didn’t really think about it that much. Well, not too much. A couple of days ago, she stood in her small cozy kitchen and just decided to make a couple more morning sandwiches than usual. Mozzarella and tomatoes, because the whole Mediterranean thing seemed such a perfect fit for him in her imagination. Bacon and beans in tomato sauce, because of his reverence to the classic British cuisine.

She always knew these things. She could just look at someone and tell what they would enjoy. Her special powers. It was like knowing what a person tastes like. But she could not always actually tell what a person was like.

Victoria hoped that her unsolicited and unexpected act of care would be credited to Emma — they seemed to have known each other longer than Victoria had lived. But it was a little naïve of her, wasn’t it? If Emma thought there was a point trying, she would have started bringing in breakfast for her friend a long time ago. This, and he could easily ask Emma if it was her…

Victoria could only hope he didn’t think it was her way of sucking up to him… Who the hell knows what he thought!

Her laptop made that noise again, another message popping up in the chat.

Thanks again, anyway.

Oh, he expected her to reply, to say something, while the void inside her head could only compare to a desert landscape with tumbleweed rolling by in the weak desert wind.

Holy cookies, he was typing again!

Good night. See you on Monday. 

She let out a ragged breath, realizing he could see she was reading his messages but not replying. Victoria’s trembling fingers flew over the keyboard whipped up by fear that he could go offline any second now. She barely had the restraint and patience to reread her misspell-ridden message and hastily correct it, cursing herself six ways to Sunday.

Don’t mention it. I just thought you’d enjoy adding something of more nutritional value to your morning coffee. See you at work. Sweet dreams.

Sweet dreams… Sweet dreams?! She was insane. Definitely absolutely insane. It’s not something you say to your boss, is it? Damn, Facebook should have business correspondence templates… Sandwiches-related business correspondence.

Victoria groaned, sitting back and burying her head in the pillow. She made such a fool of herself…

Another pop. Hesitant, she looked up at the screen, brushing the tangled hair away from her face.

:)

Ookay. Easy. Was he mocking her or did he find her reply cute?

With another frustrated groan, the young woman slammed the laptop shut and dove under the blanket, pulling it over her head. She tried to go to sleep but her thoughts kept drifting back to their odd exchange. Was she supposed to respond to that emoji? Should she continue bringing him sandwiches? Too complicated.

“Shit, it’s too complicated!” exclaimed Will Lamb in the apartment building on the other end of Hyde Park. He closed the tab and dropped his iPad, its screen still glowing in the dark of his study. A hot shower failed to wash away his scattered confused thoughts. He pressed his forehead to the cold tile, banged his head against the wall a couple of times. What kind of idiot sends emojis to a woman half his age who makes divine sandwiches (and even cuts off the crust!) getting you to change deep-rooted habits of many years?

Chapter Text

© Lady Disdain

 

The tomato sauce was a touch hot and agreed perfectly with the rich flavor of basil, and mozzarella was as gentle as a first kiss. Victoria bit into her third slice of the crunchy pizza alla Romana, feeling as if she was in the Garden of Eden. She sat in a small restaurant in the center of London watching Alfred arguing with Charles.

“No! No, this is plain blasphemy… Nancy, come here, just listen to this… this- ”

Charlie’s flung his arms up again, only by a miracle managing not to hit a tray-laden waiter. The Italian struggled to find the right words, throwing furious looks of outraged dignity at the young bartender. Alfred sat to Victoria’s left, smirking a bit more cheekily than was reasonable. The situation clearly amused him, as it did the rest of the Brocket Hall team who had dropped by Di Francatelli for a late Friday lunch.

Huffing and puffing, Charlie kept opening his mouth but both English and Italian words seemed to be failing him. Who knows how long this silent scene of clashing cultures could go on if a slender dainty hand did not come to rest on the hot-head’s shoulder. The hand belonged to Nancy, Charlie’s love, restaurant administrator and muse.

“Okay, what’s rattled your cage this time? Has somebody had the misfortune of making a joke about your mom?” asked Nancy, catching Charlie’s eye.

For a moment, a reflection of the sun melting the streets of Naples flashed in the blue crystals of the rainy London’s native. Shifting her gaze from their faces to their hands, Victoria noticed Nancy’s hand squeezing the man’s shoulder slightly, its thumb tenderly tracing the snow-white cotton of his shirt. In that exact instant, Charlie’s rage deflated like a balloon.

“This one here,” said the Italian in a much calmer voice, turning to Alfred, “had the nerve to say that pizza in freaking Chicago is better than pizza in Italy.”

Charles Francatelli glanced around his regulars perched at the big round table, clearly looking for support among the witnesses. Emma gave a barely noticeable shrug. A couple of young kitchen hands focused on chewing, all their look pointedly demonstrating their absolute exaltation and total lack of issues with the local chef. Penge let out an unidentifiable chuckle in his usual humorless and mysterious manner. Charles’s olive-dark eyes rested on Victoria, who was just finishing the crispy crust.

“I have never been to Chicago. But this pizza is all I want to eat till the end of my days.”

Nancy gave her a small smile and a wink from behind Charlie’s back. The Italian’s lips curved in a pleased smirk. He left William for last — the latter sat on Victoria’s right reading a paper, a little detached but still carefully watching his hand that was dangerously close to touching Victoria’s as both of them reached out for slices of the large Margherita.

“Alfred, what do you know about the Medici?” William suddenly asked, his eyes fixed on the article on the predictions for Brexit results.

The bartender frowned, the smug flippant expression leaving his face.

“Some high-powered Italian guys, right?” he said, casting a sidelong glance at his boss.

“Right. They loved poisoning people, you know. Especially those who talked a lot,” smirked William. “And you know what else…”

He leaned slightly past Victoria to look at Alfred. Her sensitive nose caught the note of sandal on his skin and the saffron that permeated his coarse hair.

“I’m not saying our Charlie is related to the Medici in any way, although of course anything is possible… Nor am I insinuating that all Italians are alike and equally bloodthirsty… Just keep in mind that we won’t spending our Friday nights here and that Charlie cooks for each of his customers individually.”

Alfred kept silent, holding Will’s enigmatic impenetrable gaze. So did Lamb, wondering if the bartender could eventually get his meaning. But Victoria was the first to break down. She spluttered with giggles, and a moment later Alfred started laughing too, meeting William’s smile.

“Miss Kent, I would ask you not to ruin my educational endeavors in the future,” William said in a deliberately standoffish tone, raising the paper to hide his amusement.

To hide from the lovely dimples that blossomed on Victoria’s cheeks every time she smiled — even just a little bit. He had noticed that in the past month. He had been noticing a lot lately. Probably too much.

“Alright, alright,” Alfred finally stopped laughing and raised his arms in surrender. “I admit I was wrong, the killer amount of cheese in a pizza doesn’t warrant quality.”

“All ingredients must be well balanced,” added Charlie menacingly, as if the whole idea of vendetta wasn’t just a joke to him.

“Right, other people are waiting,” Nancy purred, sweeping her hand over her boyfriend’s back and nudging him towards the kitchen doors.

Charlie nodded curtly to his Brocket Hall friends and hurried back to work. Nancy looked around gingerly, drew up one of the light wooden chairs and joined the company of cooks.

“Now, Alf, listen and learn: when dealing with an Italian man, there are two things you can’t joke about — food and his mom.”

“Is it really that serious with his mom?” Alfred raised his blond eyebrows.

“Serious doesn’t even begin to describe it. You don’t compete with her, you don’t impinge on her authority. The only thing you can do is be her friend. I was lucky, it comes easily to me, and Charles’s mom is one big-hearted donna. I still had to go through the screening process, though.”  

“Was it speed noodle pulling?”

A burst of laughter rolled over the table. Nancy chuckled.

“Almost. I had to make pasta by an old family recipe. To please all members of the family — including remote aunts and uncles and Charlie’s brothers and their families and partners. And under no circumstances was the result to be more delicious than Donna Francatelli’s pasta.”

“And?”

“Well, luckily, I live with a chef. Charlie kept sneaking into the kitchen like an Italian James Bond to help me. I passed the test but I suspect he blabbed to mommy in the end. And since she never said a word about it, she must be a wisest woman.”

“Here’s to understanding relatives,” Penge summed up, raising a glass full of blood red wine.

Crystal chimes filled the air. Even William Lamb peeked from behind the paper, holding out his hand. Victoria’s glass was the first one he clinked, splashing some of the wine. A few drops rolled down the olive skin. Will dove back into the political rhetoric — anything not to watch Victoria bring her musical fingers to her mouth, thoughtlessly licking off the wayward ruby beads.

“Hey Vic!” Alfred called from her left. “Charlie’s pizza is awesome but finger-licking good is just an expression. You know that, right?”

She started, caught by surprise, embarrassed, and her foot in an laced ankle boot jerked, causing her leg to bump into William’s knee under the table. He stiffened, noisily crumpling the edge of his paper.

“I was just thinking,” Victoria’s elbow playfully jabbed Alfred in the side. “About relatives. And understanding.”

“Oh,” Alfred drawled enthusiastically. “Spill! For one of our own, we’ll tear anyone to pieces.”

With ostentatiously loud sniffs, Penge and Emma both eyed the bartender skeptically. Alfred was famous for his tales about his military service, fascinating and very implausible. According to him, he had accomplished three times more labors than Hercules. But worn out customers loved those late night stand-up improvisations. All the others loved Alfred for his easy-going nature.

Meanwhile, Victoria tried to figure out if she should share her problems with the people she hardly knew. After all, her problems were more ridiculous and annoying than requiring emergency action.

“It’s not a big deal. Nothing scary. It’s just my mom is going to come to dinner this weekend. As tradition demands, she’s going to bring her boyfriend — whom I can’t stand. And her brother, my uncle, is in town, too, and she’ll probably bring him as well, just in case, so that I wouldn’t be able to hide the bodies without people noticing. And if Uncle Leo comes, it means my cousins will be there, which means another two ladies whose faces can turn wine into vinegar.”

One of the kitchen hands whistled.

“Well, at least your relatives don’t bring the Bible to family dinners, hoping to straighten you between tea and dessert,” Alfred guffawed.

“My ex-mother-in-law once brought tupperware with her own food, saying my cooking was ‘too English’ for her,” said Penge, sipping his wine rather melancholically.

“So how did it end? Because tonight I have to cook for four healthy adult males, one of whom is vegan and others like their meat medium. Not to mention all the dietary preferences of the lovely ladies,” Victoria threw a couple of olives into her mouth.

“I’m afraid my method won’t work for you, milady — I only got rid of my mother-in-law after the divorce,” Penge answered, downing the rest of the wine in his glass.

Nancy looked at Victoria with a mischievous smile.

“What if you make what you want and what’s convenient, and just make them sort of face the facts?”

Victoria giggled.

“Nice plan. But for the rest of the night, I would be hearing what a shitty and ungrateful daughter I am. And that I’m good for nothing: if I can’t even feed my own family, how am I going to feed customers of an whole restaurant?”

“Ha! They should see you at work,” Emma snorted.

“Ha! Don’t jinx it. They were going to drop by at Brocket Hall at first, all together, or invite you lot to ours.”

“So what? We would’ve shown them how we’re not even worthy of eating a rotten carrot from your hands!”

“Trust me, Alf, you don’t want to hang out in that loony bin. My cousins are not so bad, Ernst is pretty cool, actually. But when all of them gather together, it’s like Holy Inquisition in session.”

“And you are a witch, because you actually eat actual food and can cook something that’s not grass?”

“Something like that,” laughed Victoria.

“Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” came William’s voice from behind his newspaper.

Everybody turned to him as one.

“It’s a quote, isn’t it?” Alfred knit his eyebrows together, struggling to remember. “Shakespeare?”

The paper rustled. William Lamb’s disapproving and somewhat mischievous look was betraying his amusement at the situation. Alfred looked down in embarrassment.

“Leo Tolstoy,” Victoria said calmly, as if not talking to anyone in particular, staring at the flickering flame of a solitary candle.

William chuckled. His usually tense and austere face relaxed, a wide grin tugging at the corners of his mouth for the first time that night. He let out a dramatic sigh, admiring Victoria’s profile. His breath swayed a couple of fine strands that came loose from the wide ribbon with which she tied her short hair while working in the kitchen, touched her cheeks. A delicate blush painted her skin like a ripening fruit.

“And they have the gall to call this woman good for nothing,” added Lamb.

This time it was Penge and Alfred who whistled — in unison, but quietly, exchanging pointed looks. Her blush growing thicker, Victoria nevertheless risked meeting Will’s green eyes. Nancy was carefully hiding her smile and throwing sidelong glances towards the kitchen — she couldn’t wait to share it all with Charles. One of the kitchen hands opened his mouth, apparently intent on making a joke — which was bound to kill the mood. The gibe froze on the young man’s tongue when he met the sous chef’s menacing stare.

“You know, Victoria,” Emma started carefully, “I think Will could help you out tomorrow. With the cooking. And with your family.”

The woman turned to William, who seemed to be trying to flambé her with his glare.

 “When they meet your boss, they’ll see you are in good hands. I mean your career is,” finished Emma.

Victoria still looked embarrassed but somewhat cheerier.

“I don’t think it would be appropriate,” William said quickly, grabbing his paper again.

“But I believe it would really help me.”

The sound of her voice caught him off guard.

“You’d really save me,” Victoria said again, fixing him with a searching glance.

And he suddenly realized how close she was. Her thigh was touching his, her smell — that honeysweet scent — enveloping him in a light haze. Probably shampoo. The blueberry eyes were almost begging him, but there was something else in their depth, something that didn’t let him fall for the innocence of her look. Oh, Victoria knew exactly what she was doing. She was playing him, picking up Emma’s game as effortlessly as she picked up new orders in the kitchen.

But he knew the rules of this game just as well.

“Well, in that case, I have to acquiesce. After all, I have yet to thank you for those sandwiches.”

Victoria grinned at him. Dimples. Unholy MacDonald’s!

“Great. Tomorrow at ten then. I’ll text you the address,” she said, nonchalance personified.

A curt quiet whistle followed. Will had already retreated under the cover of his paper but the punishment was inevitable.

“Alfred, you’re on cleaning duty every evening for a week.”

“For what? You don’t know it was me!”

“One should be familiar with the classics of the world literature.”

Chapter Text

© Lady Disdain

 

Awkward. William needed only one word to describe this night and that was it. Victoria, however, was much more eloquent and he was starting to see what attracted him to her. Oh, she could be a true nightmare.

Looking back at that night, he wouldn’t be able to pinpoint the moment when the lovely friendly girl vanished into thin air. William remembered the three wonderful hours they had spent alone making a semi-vegan dinner and chatting — no serious revelations but it had been a long while since he was so at ease with somebody he knew so little. She hummed, slicing avocados, she danced, stirring the sauce. She bossed him around, naturally, as they were in her kitchen and he had no idea about the rules she had in her kitchen.

Then the doorbell buzzed. Victoria sighed and her tomato sauce-covered spoon gave a metallic clink, falling into the sink. In a tone of voice that brooked no argument, she told him to wait in the kitchen and went into the hall, pulling off and crumpling up her checkered apron.

Then it started.

 

“Drina, you have put on a few pounds. Nobody is going to marry you when you have thighs like these. I have told you cooking as a profession affects your figure in the worst way possible, haven’t I?”

***

“Ernie! I missed you so much!”

“Vicky, you’ve heard about Alex, haven’t you? My fiancé.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m sure my lovely cousin will be very happy.”

“Excuse me, where is the bathroom? I need to wash the horror of public transportation off my hands this second.”

“I thought you took a cab.”

“We did.”

***

“This is William, the chef of Brocket Hall.”

“Oh, it’s his ex-wife who’s seeing your favorite writer, isn’t it, Marie?”

“Will, this is my mom and her gigolo.”

“Drina, don’t talk like this! John owns a serious business. By the way, you are almost colleagues.”

“Yes, Will, John owns a couple of fast food restaurants.”

“Pubs, actually.”

“I’m surprised you know the difference. The only thing you can do is count money, you can’t even make an omelet.”

“Oh, don’t be so hard on me, Drina, frying a pair of eggs isn’t for everyone.”

“Nor is having a pair.”

 

There. Probably that was the moment. The moment when the enchanting youth made way for the spicy insolence. Or was it later…

 

“Albert, tell Drina about your thesis, it's so fascinating…”

“Oh, no, let’s not do this, darling. It’s so boring. Pass the tacos, please… No, Ernst, with kidney beans, not with… Don’t you dare put this poor animal on my plate!”

“The little lamb is already dead, Flora, why don't we help him be of some use at least and enjoy the process?”

“This is ethically disgusting, brother of mine.”

“Oh, don’t start… Come on, give us some mathematics, brother of mine.”

“Eat while you’re fed, cousins of mine.”

 

Her ability to steer this chaos of temperaments and dispositions, to moderate an argument, to put out a flame and draw the fire, to fill each guest’s plate with exactly what they needed was like a gift from above. Who knows how the night might have ended, hadn’t she slipped spinach pudding to the boring couple of hippies (the ghostly pale Flora and her boyfriend Albert, one of Victoria’s cousins) just in time. Albert, a detached, close-mouthed young man, looked as if being among people was a painful burden to him. His facial expression was impossible to read because of the ridiculous thick mustache… These two made the same unpleasant impression, but that only made their union more harmonious. The lack of common interests became obvious before the dessert. The same went for the other cousin, Ernst.

 

“Victoria, could you please tell me how many calories are there in this stew?”

“Just the right amount. I cook food, not air.”

“I can’t eat this. Do you have anything slighter?”

“If you want, you can probably get a joint a couple of blocks down the street.”

“Drina!”

“Ernst, is your cousin always such a bitch?”

“Only when she defends what’s dear to her, darling.”

“Ernst, is your fiancé always such a moron?”

“Only when she assumes people owe her.”

“I see, always it is.”

“Drina!”

 

It was, for the most part, absolutely unhealthy. And he could see why she had been trying desperately to avoid being left alone with them. He could also see why she had been afraid to invite her coworkers. No one could escape an injection of the idyllic family bliss that night, no one would stand a chance against it.

 

“Tell me, Mr. Lamb, what kind of relationship you have with our Drina?”

“She is an employee at my restaurant, ma’am. It’s quite evident.”

“Are you saying your relationship is strictly professional?”

“Your repeating the questing won’t change the essence of the answer, mom.”

“No, Marie, you should calm down — who would even want her? Experienced men have an eye for more than food, eh, Will?”

“You know, John, your winking doesn’t make your remark any less obvious reason to punch you.”

“Don’t worry, Mr. Lamb, Al and I can do it, we’ve had this itch for a while.”

“Ernst, sit down!”

“Oh, Uncle Leo, I see you have taken care of the meat and decided to join the conversation. How are things at your confectionery plant?”

 

Well, at least Will really liked Ernst, seeing him the only bulwark of reason in Victoria’s family. Perhaps his brother and uncle were not so bad either but they were terribly flaccid and devoid of their relatives’ dedication.

Soon after Leopold had finished bragging of his success at an international chocolate fair, everybody were suddenly anxious to leave. The plates were empty, all appropriate conversation topics exhausted. Alex refused to join the others who were taking the cab back home and phoned some friend of hers to pick her up. Ernst stayed to help with the cleaning up.

 

“I’m sorry you had to listen to all this, William! They have always been horrible but today was a new low, it’s like they were possessed or something.”

“Let’s be honest and fair, Vic, you were taunting them yourself.”

“I think it’s only natural that Miss Kent couldn’t help responding. I’m glad if I could be of use and ease the…”

“The digestion of this spoiled sauce of family relationships?”

“Quite a precise metaphor, Miss Kent.”

“Hey, Vic, does your boss always speak like he’s dubbing Colin Firth?”

“Her boss has an excellent hearing. And a professional deformation of sorts. Just so you know, food doesn’t like it when the cook is liberal with the language. It ruins the taste. But no, sometimes I speak like a normal person. You just didn’t give me a chance to show that when you stood up for your cousin before that… asshole.”

“Well, Vicky, it’s official, you are in good hands… By the way, how are your grand plans? Have you found the site for your future temple of gluttony yet?”

“No. I’m going to Harriet’s tomorrow. She promised to show me the basics of molecular gastronomy, then we’ll go and see a place. I’m not sure though… I can’t afford the rent right now.”

“I could try to talk to Arthur, Miss Kent. Perhaps he could give you an advance… Is that even a thing is sponsorship?”

“I bet it is, Vicky. Now hold on a minute, is that the Harriet I’ve heard so much about?”

“Yes.”

“The brilliant and gorgeous Harriet, the best sous chef in Europe?”

“I told you…”

“The all legs Harriet, the former swimsuit model Harriet?”

“Ernst, the answer is no. You can’t come with me tomorrow.”

“Why not?!”

“Because you have a fiancé!”

“Ancient history.”

“What, already?!”

“Well, you didn’t like her, did you?”

“There you go, case in point. I know you inside out. Don’t even think of hitting on her.”

“Oh, dear cousin, you’re hurting me. You’re breaking my heart.”

“I won’t have time to look after you tomorrow.”

“Hmm. Well, then William can look after me!”

“What? No, wait, look, I have no business being there at all…”

“Oh, come on, you’re going to have fun! The new ground in culinary art. Molecular cuisine is the height of gastronomic fashion these days.”

“Victoria, I hope you realize tomorrow is my only day off.”

“Well, good, this way you’re not going to waste it.”

“I would like to remind you that I have already helped you today.”

“Don’t guilt trip me, I’m not falling for that.”

“Victoria!”

“William!”

“Guys, guys, sorry to interrupt, but there’s really no way in hell that I’m missing my only chance to meet this Harriet who’s hotter than Auntie Lehzen’s pies.”

 

Will rested his head on the back of the couch. He didn’t feel like sleeping. He could still taste the strawberry dessert and the soufflé that had been a little flat. Everyone had recipes they weren’t good at…

Victoria. So stubborn, so willful, so intoxicating. She had pushed him headfirst into a new adventure.

Chapter Text

© Lady Disdain

Le Roi-Poire sat on the roof of a Georgian style mansion. The building was renovated to the degree of brand new and screamed the owners’ luxury status. Will, who had clearly been here before, looked annoyed for some reason. Not that Victoria had watched him so often that she could now read tiniest fluctuations of his mood. But it was pretty obvious that there was a reason his gaze grew so heavy.

“Are you alright?” she asked, carefully touching his shoulder.

“Of course. Just a usual spasm of patriotism of an Englishman lassoed into a French restaurant,” Will chuckled quietly, leaning to her right ear.

A swarm of sweet tingling goosebumps swept across her back.

“Well, where is she?” Ernst said quite loudly, leaning to her left ear and nearly deafening her. “Where is our belle dame?”

“In the kitchen, obviously. William, will you please make sure he doesn’t break anything, or accidentally eat anything he shouldn’t eat or do anything to make my friend file for a restraining order? Actually, you know what, just wait here. Both of you.”

“Yes, mom,” Ernst smirked brazenly.

“Yes, dear,” William played along.

Victoria feigned a frown, dodged her cousin’s bear hug and hurried to the transparent doors that connected the open terrace to a futuristic kitchen that looked more like a glasshouse.

Will nodded to the bar running along the verge of the roof. The counter was all glass and metal too. Will found this crazy contrast of the modern interior design and the old architecture of the mansion rather distasteful. Then again, what could one expect from Louis Valois? From someone whose words were like a dessert and whose actions like a cabbage knife?

Ernst ordered scotch.

“Isn’t it a bit early? It’s only two p.m.,” William said carefully, starting to understand why Victoria had persistently warned him not to let her cousin out of his sight.

Ernst drained his glass in one go.

“Force of habit. A friend of mine used to work here. Alex. Russian. Hardcore. Perfect company for any night, all ladies loved him, including our baby Vicky. Aunt Marie had a nervous breakdown when Victoria brought him to a family dinner. Ah, those were the days. We partied every night. He taught Vicky to kiss, to make borscht et cetera. They broke up but stayed friends, when he was deported because he had been living in London on a travel visa for five years… That was when Louis Philip hired Harriet.”

Ernst fumbled with his empty glass, while Will tried to make sense of all the new information. Not that he was surprised… Actually, the more he got to know Victoria, the less anything could surprise him.

Will shot a sidelong glance at Ernst, who looked like he was in a trance, swirling the solitary drop of scotch across the bottom of the glass. The young man appeared to be a little nervous.

“Why is it so important to you, to see this Harriet?” William said, shaking his head at the bored bartender.

“It's not. Not really,” Ernst answered nonchalantly. “I know that my cousin is very fond of her. That she is a first-rate cook and a reliable friend. When Vicky had a rough time with her mom and stepfather, she lived with Harriet. They met in college, Harriet is just a couple of years older. And that’s basically it. I’m just curious to get to know such a close friend of my favorite cousin… That and, you know, I do have to maintain my reputation of a guy who'd chase any skirt on either side of the Channel.”

Will snorted. He had been right after all, thinking that Victoria would have had it tough without this cousin by her side.

The door slammed behind their backs. Will and Ernst turned around to see Victoria accompanied by a tall young woman with deer eyes and long dark hair pulled into a high bun under a neat white cap.

“Harriet, meet Ernst, Ernst, meet Harriet,” Victoria blurted in one breath, barely looking at her cousin or her friend. “Will, Harriet said her chef is not in at the moment, so we can hang around the kitchen for a while. What do you think?”

“Uh… Yes,” Will mumbled, squinting at Ernst.

Ernst was clearly out of the realm of reality and his usual eloquence seemed to have deserted him. Will could see it, theoretically, — Harriet was an objectively striking woman. But there was something very down to earth about her. Her eyes betrayed her natural pragmatism, even temper and composure. No wonder she was known as an excellent sous chef; like Emma, Harriet looked at the world with the confidence of a person who can sort out anything, including an apocalypse. Yet, somehow, the idea of being attracted to her as a woman felt almost impossible. It was like loving the cold marble of Renaissance statues.

Bewilderment flashed in Harriet's eyes. Realizing that the pause was getting too long, William nudged Ernst’s shoulder, and he nearly jumped, holding out his hand and pulling on a smile.

“Happy to finally meet you. The way Victoria described you, I imagined at least a goddess. I can see now that Victoria didn't tell me the half of it.”

With a quick bow, Ernst pressed a light kiss to the back of Harriet’s hand. Her eyebrows crept upwards, the curve of her lips nevertheless indicating attraction rather than revulsion.

“That was the most ridiculous compliment I’d ever heard,” she laughed, airily and without malice, showing her pearly teeth. “But knowing Vicky, I am not surprised that you’ve been so misinformed about my virtues. It’s a pleasure to meet you too. And yes, I have heard about you from her as well. Quite a lot, actually,” she added wryly.

Ernst let out a tortured sigh.

“Am I to understand that I don’t stand a chance, madam?”

“Depends on what you expected,” Harriet chuckled. “And you can call me Harry.”

“Sure, don’t mind us,” butted in Victoria. “The clock is ticking and we’re still not in the kitchen. By the way, this is William Lamb, the man who cooks better than all three of us combined. Thank you for your time.”

Will suddenly realized how flattered he was by her fiery sarcastic tirade.

Chapter Text

© Lady Disdain

 

Ernst called the next day and that could be considered an incredible achievement on his part. Knowing with whom she was dealing, Victoria fully expected him to start asking questions as soon as they had said goodbye to Harriet at the door of Le Roi-Roire. But that had never happened and she had a tentative hope that they were safe this time and that she was not getting a seat on the entertaining but exhausting ride called “Ernie found the love of his life”. The last time was still fresh in her memory. Ernst had fallen for her classmate and, following an extremely sad incident that involved the dean’s hairpiece, a donkey and a lute, Victoria was kicked out of college and Uncle Leopold kept Ernst out of the country for six months, threatening to ship him off to the army.

She was chopping onions when she felt the phone buzz in her pocket. An unease stirred and stretched somewhere in the pit of her stomach. Her eyes started watering — whether it was the pungent smell or a premonition, she could not tell. Unable to sneak out right away, Victoria quickly pulled out the phone, unlocked it with a slide of a wet finger across the screen and wedged it between her ear and her shoulder, all the while dumping the onions off the cutting board and into a sizzling pan. William glared at her, rhythmically pounding a gigantic slab of meat. Victoria took the risk of ignoring his glare.

“Vicky, you know you’re my favorite cousin, right?” her cousin’s voice was syrup-sweet.

“Good morning to you too, Ernst. What do you want from me?”

“Is it that obvious?”

“The only thing more obvious is I’m about to drop my phone into the turkey stew because of you."

“So ask your boss for a couple of minutes’ break, he’s not going to say no to you. This is a matter of life and death.”

“You are overestimating my influence on him,” Victoria made a face, starting to dice peppers.

“No, you are underestimating it. You are the cake at the celebration of his midlife crisis. And do you know his reputation? One lady, an acquaintance of Uncle Leo’s, once intimated that he’s got, and I quote, ‘an impressively nimble’ tongue.”

“I wonder if there's even anything you could say to convince me to acknowledge you as my relative again.”

“I am in love, darling,” solemnly announced the voice on the other end of the line.

“Ernie no.”

“Ernie yes!”

Victoria groaned, tilting her head a little. The phone slipped and took a rapid dive towards the stewed vegetables. But before the stew claimed the wayward device, it was caught by a painfully familiar bronze-skinned hand with a small scar on the little finger. That day, cooking with her for her family, Will smiled as he recalled teaching his son to cook a couple of years previously. The boy had accidentally slashed his father’s finger with a knife. Now it was Victoria’s turn to smile, guiltily and as innocently as possible.

Will heaved a deep sigh, nodding to the fridge and gesticulating that she could have no more than five minutes. If he only knew what his magnanimity was dooming her to…

Hundreds of microscopic icy needles bit into the flushed skin of her cheeks. Victoria took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the fresh cold air and mixed aromas of herbs: spearmint, coriander, parsley… Basil… the herb that for the rest of her life would be associated with a pair of attentive eyes.  

“Vicky, where did you go?” Ernst complained.

“To try and figure out the quickest way to leave the country. And take Harriet with me.”

“Don’t be so mean. Tell me everything you know about her.”

“Out of question. I am not going to help you.”

“But I’m family!”

“And that’s the only reason I haven’t hung up yet.”

“Come on, Vicky, pretty please. You can’t be still mad at me for telling Will about the borscht.”

Victoria sighed. No, she was not mad. Will’s reaction, when he had asked, seemingly in passing, about Alex and her knowledge of the Russian cuisine, felt suspiciously like jealousy and stroked her ego rather than annoyed her.

“I’m not mad. I just want you to get one simple thing through your head. Harriet has always been there for me, taking care of me. She protected me like a mother tigress even when my life resembled a rotten tomato. And I can’t let anyone hurt her. Even my careless brother Ernie.”

The other end of the line was eerily silent. Ernst had always had something to say, sometimes even far more than necessary. It took a truly special moment to electrocute him into deep thinking.

“What if I have no intention of hurting her? What if I don’t plan on leaving her after a couple of weeks, much less calling a taxi immediately after dessert?” he sounded surprisingly earnest.

Victoria hesitated. Ernst did seem sincere this time. And come to think of it, it had occurred to her more than once, before her friends had even met, that Harriet and Ernst would make a great couple… But Harriet would kill her if she found out.

“Alright, listen carefully. Everything I’m going to tell you now, you heard in a dream. Or from a psychic. In other words, not from me, never from me, and I basically had absolutely no hand in this, got it?” Victoria said, her tone affectedly stern.

“Yes, ma’am,” came the excited answer.

“Right, here it goes. She’s allergic to nuts and lilies. She loves Renoir, Coco Chanel and Ray Charles. She’s equally fond of cats and dogs. Crazy about haute cuisine but will chew anyone’s hand off for a good burger. No donkeys, no serenading under her windows. No joking about meaningful relationships, commitments and so on. Don’t push, be patient, never ask her about her first husband. Never. Never ever.”

“Right. Don’t tell me he was a drug dealer or something like that.”

Oh, Harry was definitely going to kill her.

“Um… No, not a drug dealer. He was her history professor. He died a couple of years ago.”

“Wow.”

“And he’s the father of her five-year-old son.”

“And you thought the allergies memo should come first?”

“A child is not a lethal threat — unlike anaphylactic shock.”

“Fair enough.”

“You still want to get involved?” Victoria asked carefully.

“Of course I do!” Ernst’s reply was unexpectedly fierce. “Go on, tell me what the deal with the professor was and what kind of men she likes.”

“Well, he was thirty years older.”

“Oh.”

“He was awfully smart, he remembered every book he had ever read, he played guitar and was very kind and polite, even on morning lectures. Harry really loved him and was in a lot of pain after his death. Part of the reason I lived with her.”

“Just so I could truly appreciate the whole impossibility of my mission — what did he look like?”

“Well… Kind of skinny, had this hair… it’s like it had a mind and life of its own… Oh, right! He looked like that actor from that TV show you and Albert love.”

“Peter Capaldi from Doctor Who?”

“I don’t know, I guess…”

“You know, sometimes I do wonder if you are related to us.”

“Don’t be so dramatic, Ernie.”

“I’m dead serious, darling. And only because I love you so much I’m not going to tell Albert about your blatant ignorance. And only because of me he will still speak to you.”

“Anyway. Remember that nothing is more important to her than her kid. And she won’t follow you to Coburg when you screw up again and Uncle Leo puts you under house arrest.”

“I am twenty-seven!”

“And Harry’s son is five, and he’s always polite, calm and knows what responsibility means.”

“So what’s my rival’s name?”

“George. But I didn’t tell you that.”

“Yes, ma’am. You are the best, Vicky. Just think about it, you might have just secured happiness for your cousin and your best friend.”

“Or I might have just thrown some water on a hot pan.”

“Ooh, I like your euphemisms… You should think about it too, by the way… I mean, about your Will and his-“

The door of the fridge flew open.

“Are you on break, Miss Kent, or does the stew come with the side of your frozen ears?” barked Penge.

Victoria gave him a heavy look and marched past him, shoving the phone back into her pocket.

“I am on break. My boss knows,” she dropped nonchalantly.

She could swear Penge gave an approving chuckle.

Chapter Text

 

 

“Emma, you have the salmon. Victoria, two puddings, and will somebody please tell Alfred to get the medium-dry white from Mrs. Buckley’s Friday delivery?”

“Yes, chef!”

The smooth chorus of voices was music to Will’s eyes. The team’s enthusiasm could not have been more opportune: Robert Peel, the great and powerful arbiter of London restaurants and the author of a personal column in The Times Magazine, was already awaiting his order in the sunlit lounge of Brocket Hall.

Will pulled the towel off his shoulder and hurried to greet the guest — he and Bob had the sort of friendship that only a conversation about politics could put at risk. The repercussions of such confrontations were always the same — they would part well past midnight, rather staggering than walking, angry with one another and still divided on the subject. Yet, Peel would enter the restaurant again the next month, not a single threat fulfilled, not a single bad word written about Lamb’s cooking. Their duo was a remarkable example of diplomacy wherein the crispy crust of a kidney pie could easily shatter the centuries-old feud between the Whigs and the Tories.

Robert noticed him right away and waved his hand, pausing his conversation with a dark-haired young man sitting across the table. Will quizzically looked over the tousled hair at the nape of the latter’s neck, wondering if that was Peel’s incidental acquaintance or something work-related.

The truth was revealed to him soon enough.

“Morning, Will! Meet our new intern, Edward Drummond.”

Will nodded, holding out a hand. The young man looked quite confident, which probably was a little uncommon for an intern but natural enough for a journalist.

Peel pointed with his eyes to the empty chair, inviting Will to join them.

“I am actually quite busy, Bob,” Will tried to protest. “We’ve had three newbies in the past two months and…”

“And I think we both know that Emma can handle them. I have news,” Peele's tone brooked no argument. “Important news,” he stressed.

In the sudden silence, the kitchen king and the seasoned wordsmith were having a telepathic exchange. Will’s legs turned to jelly, dropping him onto the chair. But he couldn’t sit still for longer than five seconds — the dawning guess squeaked in his head like a pesky cricket, making him tap his foot with impatience.

“Are you trying to say what I think you’re trying to say?” Will asked in a weak voice, staring at Peel intently.

“I hope so,” Peel nodded meaningfully.

“When?”

“In two months. Officially.”

“But there will be preliminary visits, won’t there?”

“You know how this works as well as I do.”

“Excuse me, what are you talking about?” cut in Edward, looking at both men with a mixture of curiosity and bewilderment.

Robert started coughing, choking on his water. Will rushed to help him. So did Alfred who had just approached their table with a bottle of wine.

“Do you need anything?” he enquired helpfully, and Will thought proudly how professional his people were after all.

Robert stopped fanning his purple face with a napkin.

“No, we don’t. I’d rather you filled our glasses as soon as possible,” Peel nodded at the bottle of white wine the bartender was holding.

Alfred nodded back, uncorking the bottle with a gesture of a true connoisseur.

“None for me,” suddenly remembered Drummond. “I… I’m allergic to wine. Well, to alcohol in general,” he added with an embarrassed glance at the bartender.

Alfred’s bushy blond eyebrows shot up, disappearing in the mess that was his fringe.

“How do you live with this problem?” he guffawed a little tensely.

Edward opened his mouth but, for some reason, came up with nothing — which was definitely unusual for a Robert Peel’s protégé. Drummond’s cheeks were turning exceedingly red, while a smirk seemed to be glued to Alfred’s face. Will rubbed the bridge of his nose. Perhaps his praise and pride were premature.

“Alfred, refills for Robert and me and something grapes-free for our guest.”

“Yes, sir,” the bartender came to his senses, looking guiltily at the young man.

He walked off, leaving them with the half-full bottle and an awkward silence.

“Hmm,” Robert said, savoring his wine. “Where were we, Will?”

 

***


Alfred stormed into the kitchen, nearly knocking down a boxes-laden Penge. Penge muttered a florid obscenity but dismissed the incident almost immediately, hurrying on towards the fridge.

Victoria was laying out jam and fresh mint leaves on the snow-white top of the vanilla pudding. Her hands hovered above the plates with truly artistic elegance, adding the finishing strokes. Her profound concentration bordered on euphoria — a perfect illustration of true passion for one’s life’s work.

Alfred invaded her small precise world like a thunderous storm. Quite literally — he swept a couple of empty saucepans off the counter top, stumbled over the rattling cookware and landed at Victoria’s feet, taking her plate with mint leaves down with him.

“What the hell?” Victoria exploded, her furious eyes pure dark melted steel. “Alf, are we on fire?!”

“Nope,” Alfred shook his head, fishing the fragrant sprigs out of his hair.

“Why all this thrashing about then?”

Alfred was already back on his feet. He picked up the plate that remained miraculously intact, the saucepans and the poor thoroughly crushed mint.

“Robert Peel and his assistant are there,” he blurted out.

“Peel?”

Victoria knit her brows, trying to remember where she could have heard that name. Seeing her confusion, Alfred raced to her rescue: “He writes a weekly column in The Times Magazine. ‘Serious Food’.”

Victoria’s eyes flashed excitedly; her memory was obligingly pushing forward the most memorable fragments of the column she read from time to time. Robert Peel was not her favorite food critic: his style was too straightforward, he was not particularly fond of experiments with the classics and she sometimes felt sorry for the restaurateurs that failed to satisfy Mr. Peel’s taste buds — he was very liberal with criticism and could even be rude.

“Well… What is he doing here?” she asked absent-mindedly, realizing with disappointment whom she had been trying to please tonight.

“Talking to the boss. Lamb and Peel are sort of mates,” Alfred was ruffling his hair in extreme excitement.

That made Victoria even more nervous. William just kept surprising her. Some friends this man had.

“I thought he was cool…” she said, without thinking.

“Who? Peel?” Alfred’s answer was as incoherent, his thoughts clearly somewhere else.

“Not Peel,” Victoria snapped him with a towel, annoyed. “Don’t pretend you don’t understand who I’m talking about.”

Alfred held his arms before him, trying to fend off her quick hits. He giggled and walked backwards, getting in the way of the other kitchen staff.

“Alfred, off you go, back to the bar!” Emma shouted from the other end of the kitchen.

“Just a minute… Vicky, stop it! Come on, enough is enough! He is cool… and cute, I admit. That’s the problem.”

“What?” the young woman backed down in shock. “What do you mean? Cute?”

“Yeah, pretty cute. I want to ask him out!” Alfred announced.

Victoria froze, her jaw hanging; she completely forgot her question and was trying to swallow his answer.

Well, that’s new. But it’s absurd, it’s total and absolute nonsense! Alfred and Will? She was just probably overheated, lying unconscious…

“Ask him out?” Victoria asked in a bleak voice. “Will?”

Alfred froze too, for a moment. In the next, his roaring laughter shook the respectable walls of Brocket Hall. Now the other cooks completely abandoned their utensils, focusing on the new girl that had been making their life so much fun in the past month and a half.

“Vicky, how could you think that!” the bartender was shaking with laughter.

Victoria seethed again, playing menacingly with her twisted towel.

“Care to share what all the fun is about?” Penge said pensively, with a sidelong glance at the fish in his pan.

Finally, Alfred straightened up, breathing out. His cheeks were flushed, his straw-colored hair all sticking up and messy.

“Vicky, I meant Robert Peel’s assistant. So cute. Bright brown eyes. Nicely shaped. And very young. Unlike your Lamb.”

“He’s not my Lamb,” Victoria corrected him on reflex.

The entire kitchen snickered as one, rather skeptically. Now it was Victoria’s turn to blush to her fingertips.

“How do you even know this assistant of yours plays for your team?” she grumbled, scowling at Alfred.

“You should have seen his hands. Your Wi- ouch! Come on, Miss Kent! So, I mean, you know, our boss is pretty neat but I have never seen him with a manicure like that.”

“You do realize it doesn’t mean any- “

“It’s fate, Vicky! I knew we were soulmates at first sight!”

“Why do I keep hearing that lately?” Victoria rolled her eyes, talking to no one in particular.

No one answered. Only Penge started humming something vaguely resembling Love Is in the Air. After a pause, Alfred announced his verdict:

“You have to help me!”

“I shudder to ask how exactly you suggest I do that.”

Victoria picked up two plates with pudding, helping a server to carefully put them on the tray. Alfred followed her around the kitchen like a tail follows a dog, ranting, “You see, here is the thing… I was sort of mean to him. Possibly even hurt his feelings.”

“Well, that was fast,” Victoria chuckled, without a shadow of compassion.

“Ah, come off it. Don’t be such a spoilsport. Make something yummy for him and I’ll serve it,” Alfred’s wink was positively conspiratorial.

“Ha! Why do I have to solve your problems?”

“Because you’re marvelous. You’re brilliant. You take one look at a person and you know exactly what they want. You are a goddess of pots and pans.”

“I think I’m starting to see how you screwed up so fast.”

“You can have anything you want in return!”

Victoria gave her friend an appraising once over. His blue eyes were full of mischief, streaked with pathetic love-struck hope. Another chuckle died on her lips, when she suddenly saw the things from an unexpected new perspective.

“Well… Alright… Come on, let’s have a look at your soulmate.”

She resolutely marched towards the wide door with small round windows, not seeing the wide grin that lit up Alfred’s face and his wild triumphant tribal dance.

 

***


“What if he died?”

Lamb was furious, and he still managed to make the young deliquents quiver in awe without raising his voice.

“Well, he didn’t,” Victoria jumped into action. “Besides, Alfred didn’t mention the poor boy is allergic to alcohol. There was just a tiny drop of cognac in that sponge cake.”

William sighed heavily. Edward Drummond smacked his lips quietly in his sleep, sprawling on the couch in the chef’s office. He was safe and sound, and Victoria and Alfred looked too pleased with themselves. Apparently, nobody gave a damn about Will’s peace of mind or the several thousands of his nerve cells killed by the sight of the young journalist blacking out before his eyes.

“Relax, old chap,” Robert interrupted softly. For some reason, Peel looked very amused by the whole thing. “Ed will have a couple of hours of sleep and we’ll take him home.”

Victoria stole a glance at Peel, registering in astonishment that the man was actually quite nice. Well, at least, he was not at all mad at their unfortunate attempt at flirting.

“And don’t forget,” added the renowned critic, meeting her eye, “they’re young. This is not the first or the last chef’s compliment that resulted in an amusing incident.”

“It’s all my fault,” Alfred sighed guiltily, looking at Drummond’s sleeping form as well.

“No, it’s mine, I picked and made that dessert, your intentions were good,” Victoria was adamant.

“Miss Kent, I don’t want to be rude, but in this kitchen, you are to do only what you’re told. At least, until you have had enough experience under your belt,” Will stared at her as sternly as he could bring himself to.

“So I don’t have enough experience?” Victoria fumed.

“You might be naturally gifted when it comes to cooking but you do have discipline issues. Lunch and dinner shifts to the end of this week,” Will said.

He sincerely hoped that he had not hurt her feelings too badly. However, to Will’s surprise, Victoria offered no objection. She just pursed her lips a little and said calmly, “Fine. As you wish. Five days this week. Next one too, because Alfred was kind enough to give me all of his penalty evening shifts. I suppose you will want to check the quality of my work and my progress in discipline personally, Mr. Lamb?”

Her face was impossible to read. Will saw a corner of Alfred’s mouth twitch, he heard Peel’s thunderous laugh. But Victoria remained terrifyingly collected.

He thought he could hear the clang of a mousetrap clamping shut. And he was the careless mouse.