Louisiana Chef Leona Buquet agrees to cook at a Colorado mountain lodge during the Christmas holiday. When she meets the son of a movie producer, she is taken by his striking good looks and warm personality. Trouble is, with glamorous actresses clamoring for his attention, why would he even notice Leona?
Cameron Fleming struggles with being in a career he hates in order to please his famous father. When he meets Leona, he feels a connection to her and wants an opportunity to get to know her. That is hard to do while dodging starlets…and the woman he wants is avoiding him.
Can love sizzle, along with the Cajun dishes, in subzero temperatures?
Leona Buquet peered out from the backseat of the Sikorsky helicopter and watched in awe as the snow-covered Rocky Mountains zoomed beneath her. As a child, she'd dreamed of one day seeing the snow-capped mountains. Today, at twenty-eight, her dream had come true. Barely able to contain her excitement, she squealed into the headset to her boss and mentor, Chef Julian Mayeux. "This is so cool."
"You a long way from N'awlins, Toto." He flashed her one of his cheeky smiles.
The pilot's voice came through her headphones. "We'll be landing in five minutes."
Once they landed, Leona helped Julian unload their luggage and gear. The squeaky crunch of her footsteps on the snow heightened her senses and filled her heart. She seized every sound, smell, feeling, and sight she could. This was a major check off her bucket list.
She placed the bags on the porch of the lodge and then went back down the steps, gathered a large ball of snow, packed it tightly, and hurled it toward Julian. The snowball smacked him on the head. She couldn't distinguish between the snow or the gray in his hair and goatee.
"Why you little…" He dropped the bag he carried, bent down and gathered his own ammunition. He sailed the snowball toward her. She dodged the assault and taunted him. "Missed me."
Before she could move, he threw another ball and hit her directly in the forehead. "Not dat time." He laughed and his large belly shook from the effort.
Leona gasped as she wiped the snow from her face and hair. With every breath, the crisp air bit her lungs.
"Ready to cook some good Cajun food for some wealthy people?" Chef Julian's thick Cajun accent sailed through the thin air while he tried to catch his breath.
"I'm always ready to cook good Cajun food." Leona gasped for air as well. They weren't accustomed to the thin air at these high elevations. After all, in New Orleans, they lived below sea level. She hefted her bag onto her shoulder and entered the lodge.
The commanding entryway loomed above with massive log beams and a large chandelier of intertwined elk horns.
"Julian, I see you made it." A silver-haired man greeted them. Julian's friend, she suspected. His blue eyes sparkled in the natural light streaming through the twenty-foot wall of windows.
"CG." Julian extended his hand. "It's good to see you again." He turned toward Leona. "This is my Sous Chef, Leona Buquet."
"It's nice to meet you Miss? Mrs? Buquet."
"Miss Buquet. CG Fleming." He extended his hand for Leona to shake. "Welcome to my mountain home." He pointed down a long corridor. "The kitchen is down here." He guided them down the hallway where watercolor paintings of elk, deer, rainbow trout, and bear covered the walls.
The gourmet kitchen sported the finest stainless steel appliances and more than adequate counter space. Granite countertops covered a small bar with leather stools circling the opposite side. "Wow, it will be a joy to work in this kitchen," Leona said.
Julian looked around and snickered. "It'll do."
"I see you haven't changed much. Mr. Grinch." CG smiled.
Julian grinned. "Wouldn't want to disappoint." He plopped the bag holding their kitchen gear onto the counter. "Is our food shipment here?"
"Yes, it's been placed in the freezer room and the fresher items will be delivered later today. If you follow me, I'll show you to your rooms."
"Is Carletta here?" Julian asked.
"No she can't come this year." CG's smile faded and a flash of sorrow crossed his eyes. "Her best friend from college is ill, so she's flown to be by her side for Christmas." He turned to Leona. "Carletta is my wife and the person who has kept me on the straight and narrow for almost forty years."
"Yeah, his better half." Julian stared at CG. "Everyt'ing OK between you two?"
CG nodded. "Yes, never better."
"Well, give her my love and tell her I'm sorry I missed her."
CG led them out of the kitchen and to the massive stairs in the living room. They climbed to the second floor. Each step was a large log cut in half. Once upstairs, wide pine planks covered the floor of the expansive hallway that ran along the west side of the house in both the north and south wings. They stopped at the end of the North hallway. He opened the door on the east side. "Miss Buquet, this is your room. Julian you're across the way. I'll let you freshen up. If you need anything, I'll be downstairs. The housekeeper, Mrs. McCaffrey, can also help you. She'll be here later today."
Leona entered her room and placed her suitcase on the holder next to the log post bed. The multicolored quilt of burgundy, green, blue, and cream-colored squares covering the bed matched the curtains, and a hanging miniature version adorned the wall above the bed.
She peered out the window. The view took her breath. The snow-covered peak towered above the lodge with deep green Douglas fir dotting its base. Several pines grew near her window, their branches reaching out toward the lodge. The pristine snow covered the ground and sparkled in the midday sun. A river, frozen on the sides, flowed along the curves and over large boulders.
She took in the sight and then jotted a few notes in her journal. When she described CG on her pages, there was something about him—something familiar. She'd have to ask Julian how he knew him. Once she’d freshened up and changed, she met Julian down in the kitchen.
"How many are we feeding?" she asked.
Julian reviewed the guest list and counted off the names. "It looks like five guests, CG, his son, Cameron, and the housekeeper, Mrs. McCaffery. So with us two, that's ten mouths to feed every day. Three meals. You up for it?"
"Am I up for it? Really, Chef? This is a dream job chefs live for."
He grinned. "Oh yeah, over a week of isolation, cold weather, cookin' in the Rocky Mountains for a bunch of spoiled rich people. Dat's a dream, all right."
"C'mon, Chef, tell me how you really feel." Leona began unpacking their gear and placing the items where they would find them for dinner tonight. "Why'd you take this job if you don't want to do this?"
"Because I've known CG for over twenty years, and he's been a good friend. I couldn't say no when he asked." His tone softened. Chef Julian opened the glass doors and began rearranging the items in the refrigerator. "Besides he's not a spoiled brat rich dude, and he's paying us a boatload of money. I can get that new ice cream maker we talked about and a few other things for the restaurant. And you, my dear, will be a few thousand closer to getting your own restaurant."
Leona smiled. Yes, she would be closer to rebuilding Leo's. The restaurant her grandmother, Leona, had opened and run along the lake near New Orleans. Her father had taken the reins and run it for years. When Leona graduated from the Louisiana Culinary Institute she was in line to take over and allow her father to retire.
But Hurricane Katrina changed their plans. The restaurant had been totally destroyed and the insurance money hadn’t been enough to rebuild. So all she owned right now was a cement slab with a nice view of Lake Pontchartrain.
Leona opened her laptop and brought up their menu for the coming week. "How do you know CG?"
"He used to live in Louisiana. He helped me open my first restaurant."
"Really?" She lifted the culinary torch from the gear bag. They'd need it for the crème bruleé tonight.
"That's another reason I brought you along. If you impress him, he might be interested in investin' in another restaurant. Not that I need you as competition."
She placed her hands together and bowed to him. In a deep reverent voice she said, "You know, oh great, wise Chef Julian, that I could never compete with you."
"Great, we've been here less than two hours and the sass and disrespect has already started. Ay, yi, yi, it's going to be a long week." His dark eyes twinkled, and his silly grin offset the dark goatee dotted with gray.
She laughed. "You're such a drama queen."
He winked at her. "King, that's king. See if you can find the bags of shrimp for tonight's meal." He pointed toward a door off the back of the kitchen." CG said something about a freezer room in there."
"Great, I'll see what I can find." She opened the door that led down a hallway. The first door led into a pantry the size of her bedroom in her tiny apartment. She was pretty sure she'd died and gone to chef-heaven, a to-die-for kitchen, and now this. Stocked shelves lined the walls with a counter down the middle with drawers underneath. Anything they needed, she was pretty sure they'd find in here.
She backed out and went down the hallway again in search of the "freezer room." Another door jetted off to the right, she opened it and understood why CG had said freezer room instead of walk-in freezer. The room held seven commercial grade freezers with another door leading into a large walk-in freezer.
She found bags of shrimp and a few other items they'd need for tonight's meal. Before she headed back to the kitchen, the door at the end of the hallway beckoned. Where did it lead? When she opened it, a blast of cold air rushed in and took her breath away followed by a blur of white the size of a small horse. Before she knew what hit her, she was flat on her back getting sloppy dog kisses—all over her face.
"Max. Stop!" CG appeared and captured Max's leash. "Stop, boy! Sit."
Max picked the worst time to obey. He stopped licking and sat—on Leona.
CG pulled the near hundred pound, snow-dripping lab off her. "I'm so sorry. He's still a puppy, and we're working on manners. Seems the snow makes him a little frisky. Are you OK?"
"Yes, I'm fine." She laughed and rubbed the dog's ear. "Still a puppy? I can't imagine how big he'll be when he's full grown. Hello, Max."
"He should grow into those feet at about one hundred pounds."
Max sat on the floor next to her, leaned over, and licked her face again.