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She’d always been a glutton for punishment.

Since the first time she had held a paring knife at the tender age of 12, Delphine had thrived on the stress, the noise, the pressure, the chaos of working in a restaurant. Something about the furious cacophony of pans banging and people shouting and servers ducking under steaming plates gave her a thrill she never got anywhere else. Working in her father’s quaint little restaurant, she had fallen in love with food. He had taught her everything he knew, and she had come a long way from that little girl standing at his side in his cramped, steaming little kitchen.

In fact, she just happened to be the co-owner and head chef of a (so far) successful, high-end French restaurant in downtown San Francisco. She had worked very hard to get to where she was, and had more to be proud of than most peers her age. But still, no amount of experience - in the kitchen or otherwise – had yet taught her the patience to deal with her most hated and reviled type of people: food critics.

More often than not, someone touting to be a critic of her restaurant ended up being little more than some hipster with a Wordpress blog. She couldn’t even count the number of times she’d read a review of her dishes, always accompanied by a Valencia-filtered image of her perfectly plated food, on some backwater website only frequented by the writer’s friends and family. It irritated her to no end, which is why she wasn’t quite as high strung as she could have been when one of the waitresses came scuttling in to the kitchen, narrowly avoiding a large flame from a saucepan, and skidded to a halt at her side.

“Chef,” she panted, “Chef there’s a critic here. She didn’t say where she was from, but she has a notepad and a—“

“—a what, Sophie?” Delphine questioned disinterestedly, sampling a broth with one of her most cherished possessions – her father’s old tasting spoon. “An Instagram account and the desire to annoy my patrons by taking pictures of her food instead of eating it?”

“Well I just, I think I recognize her name from the paper,” Sophie said breathlessly, her cheeks flushed in the heat and bustle of the kitchen.

“Which paper?” Delphine sighed, stepping around her to keep an eye on her new sous chef, who she still wasn’t sure of. “USF? As if we need any more college students in here trying to get a free meal out of us.”

“Uh, no, actually, she had a press pass. It was Cosima something. The one that runs the food section. Nee-how? she asked herself quizzically.

Delphine immediately turned her attention from Luc (she insisted on hiring French chefs exclusively) who was slicing an onion not quite thin enough for her to consider it truly julienne, and looked at Sophie with rapt attention. “Cosima Niehaus?”

“Yes! Niehaus, that’s the one,” Sophine confirmed with a snap of her fingers.

“Damn,” Delphine sighed. Cosima Niehaus worked for The Chronicle, which happened to be the biggest paper in town. And though her restaurant had gotten nothing but rave reviews since it opened 7 months ago, she’d yet to hook a big critic. “Why tonight!?” she groaned, glancing around frantically. They were down a server and she wasn’t at all confident that Luc wouldn’t completely screw her over. He’d seemed so perfect on paper, and he’d shined in the trial menu he’d prepared as an interview. But he didn’t seem to thrive quite as well as she on the hellish conditions that consisted of working in the kitchen of an upscale, downtown restaurant.

Delphine blew out a breath, “Fine. Take care of her, get Marie to take over the rest of your section if she can. I’ll handle this.” Sophie nodded and scurried out of her way, clearly relieved to have gotten the task of delivering the alarming news over with. Delphine pulled down a saucepan and started preparing a cassoulet. She wasn’t going to leave this one up to chance. “Brigitte,” she shouted to one of her line cooks, who froze in terror at hearing her name called by the boss, “is that piperade finished?”

“Yes chef!” Brigitte called dutifully, glancing down in panic at the dish, which had started bubbling ominously. She pulled it off the burner in haste.

“Good, get it out to the critic, Sophie will point her out to you,” she ordered, pulling ingredients down off a shelf. Her movements were quick, practiced, smooth.

She really did live for this.

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“She wants to speak to you, chef,” Sophie said meekly, ducking as Delphine turned around with a searing pan in her hand, setting it on the counter behind them to cool.

“Who? The critic?” she asked, sluicing the contents of the pan expertly in circles with a practiced wrist.

“Yes, she said she wanted to see you,” Sophie gestured a thumb in the direction of the front of the restaurant.

Delphine let out a breath, “Okay, I’m on my way.” She barked at a line chef to take over her dish and pushed her way out of the swinging doors into the deliciously cool and decidedly less noisy front section. She glanced around for Sophie as she pulled off her hat, unbuttoning the front of her uniform to cool down, and saw Sophie chatting animatedly with a young woman seated by the front window. Delphine stopped in her tracks as she got a closer look at the critic that had wanted to see her.

She was young.

For some reason, reading her elegantly worded reviews in the paper, Delphine had always pictured her as being a mature woman, in her 50s perhaps. This girl couldn’t be older than say, early 30s. And she was strikingly beautiful. Her tight, small body was wrapped in a black dress that was perhaps a touch too casual for the high-end restaurant she sat in. Her shapely legs were covered with crazily patterned tights. She had on thick, chunky jewellery that was somehow not gaudy when juxtaposed with the fluid, elegant way that she moved. And her hair was in dreads, which normally was a bit of a deal-breaker for Delphine. But, at the sight of her, the blonde found herself trying to smooth her hair back into its severe bun, attempting to wipe the grease from her face as she made her way towards the critic that held a good portion of her reputation in her jewelry-bedecked hands.

Sophie made a hasty exit as she saw Delphine striding across the restaurant, and the brunette turned to watch Delphine close the gap between them, her eyebrows rising above the line of her glasses as a wide smile split across her face. Delphine felt a smile tugging at the corners of her own mouth at the sight of this woman’s easy grin, but she trained her elegant features into a professional, neutral expression. “Good evening,”she said briskly as she reached the small table, stretching her long fingers out to the seated woman.

“Well hi there,” came the response, dark eyes glittering in the candlelight. She accepted Delphine’s offered hand, her grip surprisingly strong, “I’m Cosima Niehaus.”

“Delphine Cormier,” replied Delphine, suddenly very aware that she smelled of cooking grease and pot-au-feu. “Thank you for coming, Ms. Niehaus.”

The girl waved her hands in front of her face, eyes closing briefly. Her multitude of rings flashed in the soft light. “Please, Cosima, just Cosima is fine.” Delphine nodded tersely, but refrained from reciprocating the offer to be called by her given name. “Would you like to sit?” Cosima asked, gesturing to the chair opposite her.

“Thank you,” Delphine nodded, sliding into the seat. She hadn’t actually sat in her own restaurant since her and her business partner had opened the place over half a year ago. The décor and settings were all Felix, Delphine had taken little interest in the way things looked, and she had left the fretting over paint samples and tablecloths to him. He really had exquisite taste. Delphine returned her attention to the woman sitting opposite her, trying not to notice how flustered she was starting to feel under that openly curious gaze.

“I have to say,” Cosima mused, propping her chin in her hand, “you’re like, way younger than I was expecting. I’d heard that you were some kind of wunderkind, but I had no idea that you were like, the Doogie Howser of restaurateurs.” Delphine blinked, Cosima’s rapid fire speech causing her brain to falter as she attempted to keep up. She was spared having to ask what a Doogie Howser was as Cosima continued to talk, “And nobody ever mentioned that you were drop-dead gorgeous either. But I guess being beautiful has no bearing on how well you can cook, so, why would they?”

Delphine’s mouth was hanging open, completely at a loss. Cosima had called her beautiful. She couldn’t remember the last time anyone had complimented her like that. She worked in a male dominated field, and in order to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the boys, she’d had to be hard, all edges and prickles. No one would have taken her seriously otherwise. She was so used to people being intimidated by her that she found the warm gaze and open interest this woman was showing in her to be completely disarming. Alarmingly so. “Oh, well, thank you,” she replied lamely, internally kicking herself for sounding so juvenile. She was a professional! Poised! Calm! She twisted the hat in her hands under the table.

Cosima ducked her head, smiling a crooked, amused smile. She reached forward and took a deep sip of her merlot. “You’re welcome. But, even though I’d much rather spend some time getting to know you, I guess we better get to business. I know you must be, like, insanely busy right now.”

Delphine nodded. I’d much rather spend some time getting to know you. After all these years, so driven and focused on this one goal, was there anything left of her to know? She bit her lip, feeling panicked at how quickly this petite woman had been able to dissemble her. “Yes, I am.” She allowed herself a soft smile, which seemed to cause Cosima’s to burn even brighter.

“Perfect. Well, I’ll get to the point then,” she sat up straight, looking Delphine dead in the eye. “I wanted to talk to you before I write my review in the paper. See, the thing is, your food is good. Great, even. But it’s not five stars,” she said cautiously, tugging her bottom lip down to show a row of even, white teeth, “not yet at least.”

Delphine felt her smile vanish, her infatuation with the woman sitting across from her dissolving into a burning fury. “Pardon?” She rarely allowed herself to speak French in front of her patrons. She felt as though it was gimmicky, being the French owner of a French restaurant was enough, she didn’t need to pepper her speech with superfluous “ouis” and “nons” and sacre bleus like she’d seen other French chefs do. Her food spoke for itself. Or at least, she thought it did. Until this she-devil with strong fingers and warm, dark eyes told her otherwise.

“Don’t get me wrong here,” Cosima held up her palms in defense, Delphine’s eye landing on a tattoo on her wrist. “It’s incredible. And the technical aspect of it is flawless. But it’s missing something.”

“And what would that be?” Delphine asked, finding herself leaning forward, her hand gripping a corner of the table.

“Heart,” Cosima answered with an infuriating shrug.

“I beg your pardon?” Delphine asked, eyes flaming. She hadn’t come out here to have her food insulted, no matter how attractive the insulter happened to be.

“Look, I don’t have to tell you that you’re so talented at what you do. But there’s more to food than executing a recipe perfectly.” She indicated an exquisitely plated dish of pike quenelles that were being whisked past their table. “Like, it’s beautiful, and it’s flawless. But there’s no soul to it, you know?” She took another sip of her drink as Delphine fumed.

“I did not realize that my soul was required in order to be considered haute cuisine,” Delphine seethed.

“Of course it is,” Cosima continued, and her face was so earnest, so genuine, that Delphine, despite her bristling anger, felt something quietly break inside of her. Something small and important. “Food is so personal,” she continued, her eyes shining with passion, “it’s so personal. And if you’re putting your heart and your soul and your passion into what you’re making, people can tell. They can taste it.” She waved a hand toward the kitchen, “And I definitely didn’t taste you in the food I had tonight,” she said, her voice lowering as her eyes slowly raked up Delphine’s body. “Believe me, I would have known.”

Delphine felt her eyebrows raise up her forehead, feeling a tantalizing mixture of offended and intrigued. She was so perplexed, so caught off-guard by this little nymph of a person, all joyous energy and emotion. She had made Delphine feel more in a five minute conversation than she had in the past two years. It was mesmerizing. It was terrifying. Delphine found herself speaking before she had even formed a thought. “So you want to taste me, do you?” she asked, her nostrils flaring. She felt a wave of satisfaction as she noticed Cosima swallow thickly, nodding her head wordlessly. “Very well then,” she continued, “I’d like a second chance before you write your review. Come to the restaurant after hours on Tuesday. That’s normally when we plan our menus, but I will make an exception this time. If that date is acceptable to you?” she tacked on the question at the end, so used to giving orders.

“Totally acceptable,” Cosima breathed.

“Excellent,” Delphine replied, standing in one fluid motion. She towered over Cosima who was looking up at her with a mixture of awe and perhaps arousal in her eyes. “I will ensure that you get your fill.” And with that, she nodded and walked away, feeling Cosima’s eyes on her back as she strode confidently into her kitchen.

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Delphine checked the clock.

Nearly midnight. They had closed a little early, on her orders, and her staff had cleaned and cleared house as quickly as possible. She had set up a small table and chairs in the far side of the kitchen for her expected guest, and she adjusted the table cloth one last time before heading to the stove top to stir her bouillabaisse.

It was perfect.

She knew that.

But she didn’t know if Cosima would agree. Apparently - infuriatingly - perfection wasn’t enough for her. Delphine huffed and walked into the small bathroom, checking her make up. She’d changed into black, pressed pants and a sleeveless white button up shirt for the occasion, and refrained from straightening her hair. She’d instead pinned it in a low, loose bun. Satisfied that she had attained the “effortlessly attractive” look she was aiming for, she left the bathroom to choose some wine for the meal.

She glanced at the clock again. After midnight now. She was starting to feel nervous that Cosima wasn’t going to show for this…was it a date? No. Delphine had practically dared her to come. It was a business meeting, a transaction. Delphine was going to blow this girl’s mind, and in return, get a glowing review for her restaurant. She would accept nothing less than this. She heard a knocking at the front door and strode out to the front, seeing the petite silhouette of her critic on the other side of the glass. She took a breath, her stomach flipping unnervingly as she tried not to run to the door in her excitement. She took slow and purposeful steps, training her face into a calm and welcoming smile, and opened the door. As soon as her eyes lit on the short woman standing at the doorstep of her restaurant, offering a bouquet of roses and a megawatt grin, her carefully composed smile split into one that stretched across the entirety of her face.

“For you,” Cosima said unnecessarily, Delphine taking the beautiful arrangement from her arms and ushering her inside.

“Thank you very much,” Delphine said, trying to keep the breathlessness out of her voice. “They’re beautiful.” She headed towards the kitchen, Cosima in tow, and tried to smell them discretely. She saw Cosima’s grin widen out of the corner of her eye and straightened her spine, pushing her way into the kitchen with the swell of her hip.

“Well, I figured I was a bit of a dick when I was here before, so I had to make it up to you,” Cosima sighed sheepishly, starting to remove her coat in the warmth of the kitchen. She was wearing another dress, even tighter than the last, though this one was a deep green.

“Everyone has a right to their opinions,” Delphine countered, filling a clear container with water and setting the flowers inside. “Even if they are wrong,” she added wryly. Cosima threw her head back and laughed, the shiny, pink roof of her mouth visible as she did so. Delphine caught herself wondering what it would feel like to run her tongue along those ridges, to feel her teeth clash with Cosima’s. She shook her head as she walked over to tend to the food.

“Well thank you for understanding,” Cosima said, following Delphine to where she stood and leaning her forearms on the stainless steel counter. “I just tend to get a bit passionate about stuff like this. I’ve been a foodie since the moment I graduated to solid foods, you know? It’s just a part of me. My mom is always in the kitchen so there’s a lot of good memories attached to mealtimes.”

Delphine nodded, stirring the dish she’d fretted over all afternoon. “Yes I know what you mean,” she added, not thinking. “My father taught me how to cook, back in his restaurant in France. All of my best memories are in the kitchen,” she smiled as she thought back to those times, standing on a wooden stool next to her father as he taught her all he knew. She opened her eyes, realizing that she’d shared much more than she’d intended, and saw Cosima watching her with a warm expression on her face.

“I bet he’s very proud of you, his daughter a big-time chef in America,” she said, helping herself to the wine. She poured a glass for each of them.

Delphine dropped her gaze, returned to the task at hand. “Well, he died just before I came here.” She said it with a tight smile on her face, her grip on the wooden spoon she held becoming severe. The truth is she had allowed herself to think of it as little as possible since the funeral, instead throwing herself into her work. She’d let her success become an obsession, something to distract her from the hole he’d left in her life when he’d died.

“Oh shit, I’m so sorry, Delphine,” Cosima sighed, her face etched with sympathy. She reached forward and clasped the hand that hung loosely at Delphine’s side. Delphine felt her chest becoming tight. What am I doing? She’d shared more with the wily stranger than she had with anyone since she’d come to America. And the warm and earnest hand that she felt in hers felt so good. It had been so long since she’d been touched, and never this tenderly. They stood together, with their hands gently clasped, the soft music of the radio filtering through the room, until a timer dinged and signaled that their appetizers were ready. Delphine dropped Cosima’s hand, determined not to give any more of herself away to this strange and sweet person that had so quickly wormed her way into her heart.

“Dinner is ready,” she said with a watery smile, “why don’t you bring the wine over and I’ll plate this up.”

“You’re the boss,” Cosima answered with a sly grin, carrying their wine over to the small table.

Delphine took a breath to compose herself and removed the pissaladière from the oven, slicing it and setting it in front of her guest. “Bon appetite,” she said dryly, sitting herself down across from Cosima.

“Merci beaucoup,” Cosima replied with a smile, taking a sip of wine. “And thanks, for doing this. Not many chefs would be open to it. There’s a lot of ego in the restaurant world,” she said with an eyeroll.

“Mm, yes, I know, I deal with it quite regularly, especially being a woman,” she mused, taking a bite of her own dish. Parfait. She swallowed, “But I should be thanking you, since big-time, important critics rarely give a chef a second chance.”

Cosima blushed, talking around her food with a hand over her mouth, “I’m hardly important.”

“Please,” Delphine sighed, “you’re the editor for the entire food section in the biggest paper in San Francisco. You can make or break someone like me.”

“Is that so?” Cosima’s eyes glittered with mischief.

“Hush,” Delphine warned, though she felt a smile playing over her lips. So much for professional. She sighed, truly enjoying the moment. “I don’t remember the last time I actually sat down to eat.”

Cosima nodded sympathetically, “I know, running a restaurant is a 24/7 gig, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Delphine agreed, “I barely have time to get home and shower before I have to fall into bed these days,” she added.

“So you probably don’t have time to like, date or anything either?” Cosima asked casually, though her expression was far from casual.

Delphine choked on her food, sputtering. They had finished their small appetizer and Delphine stood to plate the main course. “Not lately,” said over her shoulder, though her insides squirmed. She felt herself biting back a smile as she prepared the bouillabaisse. She set the dish in front of her guest, who ate with relish, and Delphine sat down to do the same.

They finished the meal over easy conversation, Delphine feeling herself relaxing more and more, especially as they opened their second bottle of wine. She found she loved Cosima’s laughter, her openness, her vibrant nature. She’d become so disciplined, so focused, she found herself realizing that she’d been forgetting to enjoy the little things in life. She felt Cosima’s legs brush her own under the table and did not rush to move her own out of the way. They sat, knees touching, as the meal ended and the hour grew late. “I’m sorry to keep you up to such an ungodly hour,” Delphine apologized, sipping her wine. “It’s the only time I have to myself.”

“I’m used to it,” Cosima dismissed her concern, “I usually stay up late to write.”

“Good. Well,” Delphine continued, suddenly remembering why Cosima was there in the first place, suddenly remembering this wasn’t a social occasion at all. Her stomach knotted with anxiety. “Are you going to tell me what you thought of my second try, then? Was there enough of me in it, do you think?” she asked. She had meant to sound sarcastic, biting, to protect herself with her wit and her thorny tongue. But she only sounded vulnerable to her own ears.

Cosima pressed her lips together, and Delphine felt her whole body wilt. “You’ve got to be kidding me! You didn’t like it?!”

“I never said that,” Cosima protested, “it was one of the most incredible meals I’ve ever eaten.”

“Then what is the problem?” Delphine asked, leaning back haughtily with her slender arms crossed.

“Delphine, your food is exquisite, and I will write exactly that in my review of your restaurant,” she said calmly. “But, as a friend, I think you’d enjoy yourself more if you let yourself experiment. You’re too by-the-book, too rigid. You could create something amazing, something innovative, if you followed your instincts. The potential is there.”

“Potential,” Delphine muttered to herself, glowering at the floor. Though the word friend was still echoing in her mind.

“Wow, you’re kind of being a baby about this,” Cosima said bluntly, her eyebrows raised.

Pardon?” Delphine choked.

“Don’t ‘pardon’ me,” Cosima said in an affected accent, “you’re a professional chef at what has the potential to be a five star restaurant. You should be able to take criticism.” Delphine felt herself shrinking under this woman’s gaze. “I’m trying to give you constructive criticism here,” she said, reaching across the table to touch Delphine’s arm. “One peer to another.”

“You’re right, I’m sorry,” Delphine shook her head, feeling uncharacteristically emotional. “I’m just having a hard time understanding. I’m used to getting technical feedback, but this…” she sighed.

“Well, look, I have an idea,” Cosima said slowly, a grin spreading across her face. “Why don’t you come over to my place, on Friday. I’ll show you what I mean,” she offered, eyebrows raising. “If you don’t agree that my way is like, a million times better, then you can have a prize of your choosing.”

Delphine eyed her suspiciously. “Whatever I want?”

“Whatever you want,” Cosima nodded confidently.

“And what happens if I do agree with you? Though that is of course highly unlikely,” she added stubbornly.
“Well in that case – which will totally happen because I’m gonna knock your socks off –I will get to choose the prize. You think you can handle being totally at my mercy?” she asked, eyebrows raising teasingly.

Delphine hadn’t been at the mercy of anyone for quite some time, and the thought sent a shiver up her spine. “I’m sure I can handle it,” she replied, more confidently than she felt.

“Good, Friday it is then,” Cosima confirmed, “but you have to promise you will keep an open mind,” she added, pointing her finger accusingly.

Delphine sat up straight, reaching her arm out across the table. “Deal,” she said confidently.

Cosima took Delphine’s hand in that firm grip of hers and shook her hand smartly, “Deal.”

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“You did the ordering? You’re sure? Because if I find the order slips on my desk tomorrow night…”

Delphine paused to take a deep drag of her cigarette. She was currently pacing outside of Cosima’s apartment building, a bottle of wine tucked under her arm, firing orders to her sous chef over the phone.

Yes chef,” Luc’s voice sounded strained, “I have it all under control, and Marielle is working on the prep for tomorrow night. Everything is going to be fine. You deserve to take a night off! Take two!”

Delphine tried to quell her inner panic. She felt as though she was a mother leaving her young children home alone for the first time. And she was not at all confident they wouldn’t burn the house down while she was away. She took another drag, “And you’ll remember to tell Sophie to do the scheduling for next week?”

“Yes…” Luc sighed.

“Right, okay. Well. I will call later to check in,” she said anxiously, butting out her cigarette and buzzing Cosima’s apartment number. Cosima lived in a trendy area of the Mission, in a well-maintained heritage building with a wide, inviting stoop. She heard the buzzer unlocking the door and let herself in with her phone tucked to her shoulder, listening to Luc reassure her for the tenth time that everything was fine. She sighed and said goodbye, marching purposefully up the stairs and stopping outside of Cosima’s front door.

She took a breath, smoothing down the front of her jeans. Cosima had told her to “keep it casual” so she had done her best. Her hair was down for the first time since she could even remember, the curls wild and completely untamed, and she wore a simple black v-neck. Rapping smartly on the door, Delphine chewed a lip as she remembered that she hadn’t told Luc that he needed to order double the truffles for next week. She was about to pull out her cell phone when the door swung open and Cosima’s beaming face appeared on the other side.

“Hey you,” she grinned, leaning forward to accept the kisses Delphine pressed to her cheeks. She was wearing yet another tight dress (how many did she have?), this one maroon. “Come on in,” she beckoned, ushering the taller woman inside. Delphine looked around at the relatively small apartment, and felt instantly at home. There were books on every surface, stacked neatly – or not – occasionally even doubling as furniture. Her coffee table comprised of various oversized tomes stacked evenly on top of one another, and her TV rested on a complete collection of what looked like the Nancy Drew series. Her furniture was richly colored, and various mismatching rugs covered the hardwood. It was cozy, and homey, and very Cosima. Or at least, she thought it was.

“I love your place,” Delphine smiled, offering Cosima the rather pricey wine that she had bought on the way over.

Cosima took it gratefully. “Oh thanks! Come on, I’ll show you the kitchen.” She followed Cosima to the right of the living room and stopped in horror as she entered the moderately sized cooking space. It was a disaster. There was food and bowls and pots and cutting boards on every surface. On the stove, a saucepan was bubbling over with some kind of tomato-based concoction, flecks of red being seared onto the area surrounding the element. She put a hand over her mouth briefly before sweeping into the kitchen and pulling it off the burner.

“Cosima!” she sputtered, grabbing a cloth to wipe down the stovetop before the sauce burned on, “how can you work in an environment like this? It looks like a bomb went off in here!” She dropped the cloth and began stacking bowls neatly and placing them in the sink until she felt powerful hands on her wrists. She looked up to see Cosima, looking at her with a wry smile on her face.

“I had a feeling you’d wig out,” she laughed, pointing at a chair that she’d just removed detritus from. “Just relax. You’re not the chef tonight. Why don’t you sit in that chair and let me do my thing. Okay?”

“But…” Delphine looked around, her hands practically burning with the desire to organize, and clean.

“Go on!” Cosima ordered, guiding Delphine to the chair. “This is how I work. It’s more conducive to my creativity.” Delphine sat, begrudgingly, and started piling the food scraps on the table into a bowl until Cosima swatted her hand. “Hey!” she leaned in so close their noses were practically touching, and a quiet portion of Delphine’s brain noted that Cosima’s eyes had flecks of gold in them. “My kitchen, my rules. Capisce?” Delphine felt her thighs burning, her mouth going dry, as she nodded dumbly.

“Got it,” she replied humbly.

Cosima stood up, for once having the height advantage. “Good. Because I’m not above tying you to that chair,” she added with a wink, sauntering over to the stove to drag the cooling pan back onto the heat. Delphine swallowed, her heart pounding, and forced herself to breathe. She focused on Cosima’s rather alarming cooking techniques to distract herself.

“Will you at least tell me what you’re making?” she asked, eyeing Cosima wearily as she added spices to a bubbling dish without any attempt at measuring the amount whatsoever.

“Nope! That would spoil the surprise,” Cosima replied firmly, “Besides you’d just tell me I was making it wrong.”

“Well if you’re not making it the way it’s traditionally made, it is wrong!” Delphine corrected.

“I beg to differ,” Cosima countered, eyeballing an unspecified amount of salt into a pan as Delphine cringed. “I’m paying homage to tradition, while giving it my own twist. Not wrong,” she winked, “Just different. There are ten French restaurants in town where a person could get a perfectly traditional coquilles St-Jaques. So what’s going to set your restaurant apart from the rest?” She flung some raw carrots into a boiling pot of something, without even looking to see if they landed where she’d aimed, and pointed a remaining piece of carrot in Delphine’s direction. “I’ll tell you what. It’s you. What you have to offer. Your own take on things.” She took the spoon from one dish and suck it in another, giving it a vigorous stir. Delphine made a squeaking noise and Cosima glared at her in warning. “Cool your jets! I’m not gonna hurt it,” she chuckled.

“Well,” Delphine cleared her throat, “if I am supposed to be calm about sitting in this disorganized mess, watching your so-called cooking, I’m definitely going to need a drink.”

Cosima laughed, her shoulders shaking as she reached for the bottle of wine that Delphine had brought. “That, I can do,” she agreed. Delphine found herself watching in fascination as Cosima wedged the bottle between her thighs for traction and plunged the corkscrew into the top of the bottle. Her muscular arms worked fluidly as she started to twist the cork out of the top, and Delphine’s thoughts drifted to what it might be like to have those thighs wrapped around her own waist. The pop of the cork brought her back to the present, Cosima staggering backwards.

“Ah, yes, just as I teach my sommeliers to do it,” Delphine chuckled dryly. 

“Hey, do I at least get points for not falling over?” Cosima grinned, reaching into a cupboard for some glasses.

“I suppose,” Delphine smiled gently, chin resting in her hand as her eyes followed Cosima.

“And how about for being really cute while I did it. Do I get points for that?” Cosima asked, glancing over her shoulder at Delphine.

“Yes,” Delphine replied, leaning back in her chair. She felt herself grinning and looked at the floor, trying to calm her emotions.

“Good,” Cosima sighed, her eyes sparkling as she set two glasses with ice on the table in front of Delphine, followed by a bottle of Pepsi. “Because, considering what I’m about to do, I’m gonna need all the points I can get.” Delphine looked at her quizzically as her host proceeded to fill the glasses with Pepsi until they were each half full.

“Cosima I thought we were having wine? What are you…Putain!” Cosima had reached for the wine bottle and poured it directly into the glasses of fizzing cola, turning the wine into a deep, murky, carbonated crimson. “What are you doing?’ Delphine sputtered, staring in horror at the concoction before her. “Do you have any idea how expensive that wine is?!” she demanded.

Cosima smiled down at her, eyes glittering, “Of course I do. I’m a food critic. It’s my job to know.” She pushed the glass closer to an incredibly dismayed Delphine. “Try it.”

“Absolutely not,” Delphine huffed, her arms crossed.

Cosima took a step closer, her eyes seeming to darken. “Now, now, Chef Cormier. You promised you would keep an open mind.”

Delphine gaped up at her. “Cosima, I am French. What you have just done is, is…”

“Blasphemy?” Cosima suggested helpfully.

“Yes!”

Cosima leaned down, her palms flat on the table, and Delphine had to use every ounce of discipline not to allow her eyes to fall to the cleavage that was just below her eye line. “I think you could do with some blaspheming. Now would you stick to your word and just try it?” She stood up took a healthy sip of her own murky concoction.

Pursing her lips stubbornly, Delphine reached forward and brought the glass to her mouth. With Cosima standing over her, she took a small sip and swallowed, allowing the flavor to roll over her tongue.

It was good.

“What exactly is this called?” she asked, refusing to admit that it was delicious. The sweetness of the Pepsi brought out subtle notes in the wine that she had never even noticed before.

“Kalimoxto,” Cosima answered with a sly smile, “from the Basque region of Spain.” She watched Delphine sniff the glass and take a bigger sip. “It’s good isn’t it?” she asked, smugly.

“Yes,” Delphine sighed in defeat.

Cosima pumped a fist in the air with a cackle and turned back to the various pots and pans that she had on the go. “Ha! Admit it, I’m winning you over already,” she said over her shoulder while she chopped vegetables haphazardly.

“Hardly,” Delphine protested, though the truth was that Cosima had seemingly won her over from the moment she flashed that smile at her from across the restaurant. Inexplicably, the fact that she had actually dared to tell Delphine her cooking left something to be desired added exponentially to Delphine’s attraction to her.

Cosima chuckled to herself, obviously charmed by Delphine’s stubborn and haughty nature. “Mmhmm,” she goaded skeptically. “Well, rather than watch me with those hawk-eyes of yours, why don’t you go and put some music on for us. The record player is in the living room.” Delphine sighed, taking her sacrilegious drink with her, as she meandered into the adjoining room. She flipped through the records with interest, Cosima’s musical tastes far more eclectic than her own. Her eyes widened as she came across a record she hadn’t seen since she was a little girl, back home in her own living room. Barbara, a French singer from the post-war era whose deep and throaty voice had been the soundtrack of her childhood. She excitedly pulled the record out and put it on, the crackle and pop of the needle squeezing her heart with nostalgia.

A deep, feminine voice filtered through the room and she closed her eyes, fighting the desire to weep as she thought of her father humming the words to the song while she danced in the kitchen by his side. She collected herself, and her drink, and returned to the kitchen to see Cosima swaying to the music herself, humming the words as she appeared to indiscriminately add ingredients to various pots. Delphine was overwhelmed with affection for this mysterious woman, and the powerful hold she seemed to have on her heart. Delphine walked slowly up behind her, and decided she’d had enough of resisting temptation, of being focused and disciplined and driven. She wanted softness and warmth and fulfillment. She wanted Cosima. She reached out and placed her hands on Cosima’s hips, leaning over her shoulder to see what she was doing at the stove. “How are things going?”

Delphine felt a surge of satisfaction as she saw Cosima’s eyes close briefly at the feeling of her own body pressed against her back, breath hot on her neck. Delphine noted a ripple of goosebumps rushing across the smaller woman’s neck, but stopped short of pressing her lips to the skin there. “It’s going,” Cosima eventually replied, though she sounded breathless. “You just can’t stay away, can you?” She was trying to joke, but her voice was just a little too low for it.

Delphine rested her chin on Cosima’s shoulder, “No, I don’t think I can,” she replied simply. Cosima’s chin dropped heavily to her chest, a shudder rolling through her body so intensely that Delphine could feel it in her own. She had let out the slightest groan at Delphine’s reply, but the sound was muted by a trilling beep from the timer on the microwave. Cosima however, lost in the feeling of Delphine’s curious body wrapped around her own, made no move to respond to the timer, and in fact had let her hand go limp, the wooden spoon she was holding sliding to the edge of the pot with a soft clink. Delphine could feel the length of Cosima’s body pressing backwards into her own. “Cosima?” she said softly.

“Mm?” Cosima answered, dreamily. The music continued to weave through the air.

“Your timer went off?” Delphine said gently, biting back a smile.

“Oh!” Cosima snapped to attention, Delphine backing up to allow her to pull some tarts out of the oven. “Shit! They’re a little burnt,” she sighed.

“Not all of them,” Delphine added helpfully.

Cosima looked up at her, her mouth a thin line. “Saboteur!” She pointed to the chair, “That’s it. You are banished from this side of the kitchen! Get back to the chair and let me finish before I end up burning my apartment to the ground!”

Delphine rolled her eyes but complied, sauntering over to the chair and plunking herself down. She’d had half of her Kalimoxto and was starting to enjoy it more and more. Not that she would ever admit that in a million years. She sipped at it as she watched Cosima running to and fro, and within a few short minutes there was quite the impressive spread on the table before them. “Cosima, this looks incredible,” Delphine gaped, her eyebrows raised.

“Try not to look so surprised,” Cosima said dryly, topping up their drinks.

“Not surprised, impressed!” Delphine confessed honestly.

Cosima was clearly not expecting such praise already, her eyebrows raising. “Well, let’s wait and see until you’ve tried it. Then you can tell me how impressed you are.” Her words were cocky, but there was a vulnerability in her gaze that Delphine knew all too well. Though Cosima needn’t have been worried. The food was beyond anything Delphine expected. Though the presentation needed work, and the recipes were complete bastardizations of traditional French cuisine, the food was incredible. It was innovative, nuanced, and delicious. Delphine could see what Cosima meant, there was heart and soul in this food. Not just a carbon copy of all the chefs that came before her. This food was Cosima. Different. Incredible.

“Cosima, I owe you an apology,” Delphine admitted, sitting back at last. “Though your methods are terrifying to watch, I cannot deny that the results are amazing. I would hire you to work in my kitchen, if you didn’t already have a job.”

“Seriously? Me. In your kitchen?” Cosima grinned, wide eyed.

“Well,” Delphine bit her lip, “I might have to put you at a station far out of sight from my own so I don’t have a stroke every night, but yes.”

“High praise,” Cosima’s smile somehow grew even wider.

“Yes,” Delphine agreed, sipping her drink. Her limbs felt warm and loose, her fingers itching to touch.

“Well you know what this means,” Cosima said smugly, setting her elbows on the table.

“Yes…” Delphine sighed. Her heart was pounding.

“A prize of my choosing…” Cosima pondered playfully, tapping her chin with her finger as her eyes blatantly roved Delphine’s body. Delphine felt her heart rate increase even more, her skin starting to prick with sweat. She knew what she wanted Cosima to ask. She definitely knew that. And she would give it to her. Gladly. “Man, the options are limitless…” Cosima continued, seemingly fully aware of the torture she was putting Delphine through. “Okay. I know what I want.”

“What?” Delphine asked immediately, her eyes dark.

“Dessert,” Cosima answered. Delphine’s whole body deflated. That was all? She could have had anything. And she didn’t even ask for so much as a kiss? Maybe she wasn’t as interested as Delphine had interpreted. Maybe…”And you’re going to make it.” Cosima added. “Topless.”

Delphine sputtered, coughing on her drink. “What!?”

“You can keep your bra on,” Cosima allowed graciously. “But you will be making a dessert of your choosing, and you will be doing it right here, right now, in this kitchen. Topless. And you’re forbidden from following a recipe.” She added. A deep flush was creeping up Delphine’s chest, her face burning. She had been so prepared for anything, and yet this…being watched…she realized it was actually quite arousing. She stood, Cosima’s eyes widening, and pulled her shirt over her head in one swift motion. Her lacy black bra was essentially see-though, as Cosima’s slackened jaw and glazed eyes indicated.

Delphine strode to the kitchen, finally in control, and neatly piled and stacked all the used pots, as well as the dishes from the table, in the dishwasher and out of the way. She could feel Cosima’s eyes on her as she bent down time and again, her skin warm under the watchful gaze. She wiped down the countertop, gathered her ingredients, and satisfied that her workspace was suitable, started pulling bowls and measuring spoons out of various cupboards. She heard Cosima leave her chair just as she was reaching up to pull down the liquid measuring cup, and looked over to see the brunette watching her, a hip leaned on the counter, eyes dark and sparkling. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re like, stupidly hot?” Cosima asked, watching as Delphine started creaming butter and sugar together.

“Not in such a colorful way, no,” Delphine replied calmly, though her heart was doing leaps in her chest.

Cosima reached forward and skimmed a hand over Delphine’s back, the skin of her palm searing hot. Delphine gasped, her movements slowing. “I didn’t say you could stop,” Cosima said softly, her hand drawing lazy circles across Delphine’s back. Delphine’s breathing was ragged, but she continued to stir, reaching for the vanilla as she felt Cosima’s lips warm and wet on her shoulder. She let out a soft sound at that, setting the vanilla down before she spilled it on everything. “What did I just say?” Cosima scolded, as she continued to press her lips to Delphine’s arms, shoulders, neck. Delphine’s breathing was audible now, her eyes mostly closed as she blindly tried to execute a recipe, though what she was attempting to make had now completely slipped her mind.

Her hair spilled forward into her eyes as she felt Cosima press the length of her body up against her back, the button of her jeans clicking loudly on the edge of the counter. Delphine felt the marble countertop bite into her hips as Cosima pressed up against her and flicked open the back of her bra. It slid down her arms, her breasts falling free, and she shucked it off as she reached for any ingredient she could find and dumped a handful of it in her mixing bowl. By the sound of it, she guessed it was chocolate chips. But the feeling of Cosima’s strong hands snaking around her hips and clamping onto her breasts made it anyone’s guess.

She felt Cosima’s fingers kneading her breasts as she let out a low, soft sigh and let the spoon clatter against the edge of the metal bowl, arms going limp as her eyes rolled back in her head. She tried to turn around but Cosima’s hands moved to her hips and held her in place.  “What's the rule?” she asked, her voice husky.

“No stopping,” Delphine panted, picking up the spoon and stirring absent-mindedly as Cosima’s hands returned to her breasts. She reached for something else, cinnamon maybe, and upended it into the bowl, creaming it all together. One of Cosima’s hands released her breast and started to travel, slowly, so painfully slowly, down her abdomen. She felt fingers flick open the button of her jeans as she grabbed a small bag of flour and dumped it into the bowl clumsily. The warmth of Cosima’s hand snaked down, down, down, slipping underneath the black lace of her underwear and sliding in between her legs to the slick heat that waited there. Delphine cried out, feeling Cosima’s body press even tighter into her at the sound, but she never stopped stirring, though it was at a slow and tortuous pace.

Cosima’s fingers danced around her clit, never quite touching, as Delphine reached for some eggs and cracked them into the bowl, all with her eyes scrunched shut, her breathing ragged. The feeling of Cosima’s finger’s skimming against her slick skin was overwhelming, and Delphine’s mouth was now open, her breathing becoming louder. She yelped as Cosima slid her fingers inside, her knees nearly buckling underneath her. “You’re not getting off until your dessert is finished,” Cosima informed her, her hot tongue running up Delphine’s spine.

Practically weeping both in frustration and at the feeling of Cosima’s fingers moving so skillfully in and out of her, Delphine grabbed a carton of milk and upended it into the bowl, half of it spilling across the counter. Cosima chuckled behind her but never slowed her pace, and Delphine, eyes rolled back in her head, reached for the goddamned spoon and kept stirring. The mixture was an unsightly bowl of muck, but Delphine grabbed a cake tin and started to dump the mystery batter into the pan, not caring where it landed as her hips moved with Cosima’s nimble fingers. She reached one hand back and grabbed on to Cosima’s ass, pulling her even tighter up against her own body, as with the other hand she scooped out more of the batter into the pan. Cosima’s breath was coming so quickly now, her little body so hot and clammy against Delphine’s back. Sensing that Delphine was almost done her task, she pulled her fingers out and started to touch Delphine’s clit so gently it was maddening. Delphine growled and spooned the last of the mixture into the pan, grabbing Cosima’s hand and pressing it harder against her flesh. “I’m done!” she panted.

“You didn’t preheat the oven,” Cosima noted, quickening the pace of her fingers, and Delphine could practically hear the smug grin in her voice. Delphine let out an exasperated howl and started punching at the buttons on the oven as the edges of her vision started to blur, and a familiar twinge started to build in the soles of her feet. Letting her head fall back and her hands drop from the oven, she gripped the countertop as Cosima’s fingers increased their speed, and in no time at all managed to pull her over the edge, her orgasm tearing through her body like a bolt of lightening. She cried out, slamming a fist into the counter as the waves of pleasure flooded every cell, Cosima slowly withdrawing her hand to wrap around Delphine’s waist.

They stood there panting, the spilled milk dripping steadily over the edge of the counter and pooling on the floor, until Delphine spun in Cosima’s arms. Delphine expected to see lust in Cosima’s eyes, and she did, but she also saw warm and open affection in her dark gaze. “Hi,” Cosima said gently, a smile playing across her lips.

“Hello,” Delphine answered shyly. It occurred to her they hadn’t even kissed yet. Leave it to Cosima to ensure their first sexual encounter was completely backwards. And stupidly, ridiculously hot. Delphine leaned down and kissed Cosima gently, at first. But as her bare breasts pressed into Cosima’s chest, their kisses quickly became passionate, Delphine sliding her tongue into Cosima’s mouth to a groan of approval. They kissed fervently, Delphine backing them up until they hit the kitchen table, at which point she assisted Cosima to daintily hop up on the table, her dress immediately sliding up her thighs as she opened her legs to wrap around Delphine.

Delphine grabbed the soft material of the dress and tugged, Cosima taking the hint and raising her arms so that it could be pulled up and over her head, revealing that she was wearing no bra. With so much skin at her disposal, Delphine’s hands roved freely across Cosima’s back, over her breasts, her hand snaking into Cosima’s underwear to slide into the moisture there. They both gasped as her slender fingers dipped skillfully inside of Cosima, coming up to coat her clit before sinking back in. She felt Cosima’s hips moving, one hand planted on the table behind her for leverage as their kisses became ferocious, their movements haphazard. “Wait, wait, wait,” Cosima panted, breaking their kiss.

“What’s wrong?” Delphine asked, her voice edged with concern. Her fingers were still inside Cosima but she had stopped their movement.

“You didn’t put your dessert in the oven,” she panted, her eyes glittering with playfulness and arousal.

Delphine growled, harshly muttering “C’est des conneries!” as she removed her hand from its rightful spot between Cosima’s legs and stormed to the oven, now fully preheated. She grabbed the cake pan of hideous muck, briefly realizing it was the single ugliest dish she had ever made, including the mud pies she specialized in as a child, and shoved it in the oven. She slammed the door shut and turned around, her gaze dark and predatory. The teasing quality of Cosima’s grin faltered, her eyes widening as Delphine closed the distance between them, placed her hands on the smaller woman’s shoulders, and pressed her backwards until she was lying flat on the table. She vaguely registered Cosima muttering “Holy shit” as she hooked her fingers under Cosima’s underwear and yanked them off.

She placed a kiss, with an added edge of teeth as punishment, right above Cosima’s clit, causing a resulting sharp intake of breath and a shudder from the brunette. Grinning against Cosima’s skin, she bit down again, gently, a little further south, letting her tongue just barely graze the tender flesh there. She heard a frustrated growl and had to swallow a laugh as this time she let her tongue slide, just barely touching, up the length of Cosima’s skin. She felt Cosima bucking underneath her, her hand coming down to tug on Delphine’s curls. “Quit fucking around,” she panted.

Delphine scoffed, lifting her head to see Cosima, eyes scrunched shut and chest heaving, on the table. “Seriously? You’re telling me not to fuck around? Miss Cosima ‘you didn’t preheat the oven’ Niehaus?” Cosima laughed, and Delphine smacked her hip playfully before resuming her position between her legs. “Fine. It is your kitchen, after all.” She ran her tongue fully across Cosima’s slick skin, causing her to cry out, and dipped her tongue deeply inside of her. She could feel her own arousal currently ruining the jeans that she was still inexplicably wearing as moved her tongue in and out, before running it back up to sweep over Cosima’s clit. With the noises Cosima was making, and the way her hips were thrashing against the table, Delphine knew it wouldn’t be long. The chairs were cracking noisily into the table as Cosima’s hips slammed onto the hard surface again and again, Delphine’s tongue moving swiftly over her clit. Her fingers came up to slide inside of Cosima, who moaned breathily, her fingers snaking into Delphine’s curls as her orgasm built. At last, Delphine felt the walls of Cosima’s body clamp down on her fingers as she came, Cosima gasping, her back arched. Delphine, watching her from where her cheek rested on her thigh, could hardly believe how beautiful she looked.

Cosima, panting, relaxed her body. Delphine removed her fingers and crawled up on the table to kiss her tenderly. “I don’t think you should be in the restaurant business anymore,” Cosima breathed as Delphine trailed kisses down her throat.

“Oh no?” Delphine asked absent-mindedly.

“No, you have other talents that deserve to be recognized.”

Delphine chuckled, running her tongue across Cosima’s nipple. “Are you suggesting I open a brothel?”

“God no,” Cosima gasped as Delphine’s lips closed over her nipple. “I’m suggesting we both quit our jobs and have sex full time. Forever.”

Delphine laughed, harder than she remembered laughing in so long. It felt so good. It all felt so good. “Yes, I think that’s an excellent idea.” She kissed Cosima again, running a hand up the length of her body, marveling at how soft she was.

“You know what else is an excellent idea?” Cosima asked.

“Mm?” Delphine had hold of Cosima’s arm and was pressing gentle kisses along her skin, starting on the inside of her elbow, moving to the warmth of her inner wrist, then the soft skin of her palm.

“Stand up,” Cosima ordered. Delphine, intrigued, slid off the table, stepping in the puddle of milk, chocolate chips sticking to the bottom of her foot, and not caring in the least. Cosima walked up to her and yanked off her jeans and underwear, Delphine steadying herself on Cosima’s shoulder as she stepped out of her pants. Her heart was racing, the warmth between her legs starting to drip with arousal and anticipation as Cosima slowly stood and walked past her to the fridge. She opened the fridge door, Delphine’s eyebrows knitting in confusion, until she saw Cosima pull out a squeeze bottle of chocolate syrup. She turned around with a devilish look in her eye, holding up the syrup as Delphine’s knees became weak beneath her. “Hungry for seconds?”

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Some time later, sprawled naked on the kitchen floor, tangled in each other’s sticky limbs, the two of them spoke softly to one another. “Wow, Chef Cormier, you’ll really go all out for a review,” Cosima sighed.

Delphine sighed and smacked Cosima playfully, “Stop.” Cosima sat up, her stomach still streaked with remnants of chocolate sauce and dropped a sweet kiss to Delphine’s bent knee before standing. She took the cake pan of Delphine’s creation from the counter where they’d left it to cool and inspected it thoughtfully.

“You ready to try your dessert?” she asked, grabbing two forks and plunking herself back on the floor next to Delphine.

Delphine sat up, horrified. “You’re not actually suggesting we eat that?”

“Of course!” Cosima exclaimed, digging a fork in and sampling a bite. “Oh my god,” she said, her expression becoming serious. “Oh my god, Delphine. This is…amazing.”

“What?” Delphine eyed her skeptically.

“I’m serious!” Cosima answered, going back for more. “Try it!”

Delphine tentatively took a small bite, her eyes widening at the heavenly taste that hit her tongue. “Mon dieu…it is!”

Cosima howled, “You have to put this on the menu!”

Delphine’s eyes flew up to hers, “I don’t even know what’s in it!” They both laughed uproariously, clutching their bellies as they rocked on the kitchen floor. As their giggles subsided, Delphine regarded her seriously. “I would like it though, if I could hire you to help me change up my menu a little.”

Cosima’s smile stretched across her face. “Really?”

“Yes, really. You were right. About everything. Your input would be amazing. I think we can make incredible things together.”

“Me too,” Cosima smiled. “And of course I’ll do it. On one condition.”

Delphine rolled her eyes, “I’m afraid to ask.”

“That we continue to collaborate and make new dishes while having tons of awesome sex.”

Delphine stuck her hand out and they shook on it. “Deal.” Cosima grinned and stood, pulling the sticky, satiated French woman to her feet and in the direction of the shower. “I’m really excited about all this Delphine. I knew as soon as I met you that you and I have so much…” she trailed off, searching for the right word.

“What?” Delphine asked, pulling her to a stop in the hallway.

Cosima smiled sweetly, and stopped to skim her fingers along Delphine’s chin.

“Potential.”