The Cook’s Apprentice
Grace Elliot
(Georgian romance. #2 Foxhall Pleasure Gardens, 1770s)


The daughter of a minor aristocrat, Livy Worth is freed from a cold, marriage of convenience when her husband dies unexpectedly. Determined to shape her own future, Livy’s ambition leads her to the kitchens of Foxhall Pleasure Gardens where she pits her culinary talents against the male chefs. But to succeed she must overcome the prejudices of her mentor, the unreadable and unsettlingly handsome chef, Mr. Blake.

Livy becomes drawn to the deeply private Blake, as he unwittingly hints at a dark past. Never before has she met such a man who can make her pulse race with one lifted brow, and working closely together tension builds between them. Although their feelings are mutual, with neither willing to risk their heart, they reach an impasse. 


[Livy Worth arrives for an interview]

            Her appointment was with the Foxhall Pleasure Gardens sous chef, Mr. Blake. By reputation he did not tolerate fools, expected the highest standards of cooking, and got them. Despite Livy's discrete inquiries, his background remained hazy, and that's what gave her hope. It seemed Mr. Blake had risen from obscurity to become second in command at the greatest kitchen in London, and his skill was self-taught – like hers. If anyone would give her a chance it would be Mr. Blake.
            "There's Mr. Blake." Larkin pointed vaguely. But, Livy’s gaze was already drawn to the man in the eye of the storm.
Blake stood with his back towards her, but even the set of those broad shoulders spoke of authority. Such wide shoulders, broad and sloping up into a strong neck. With a thrill, she realised Mr. Blake had dispensed with his jacket and stood in his shirt sleeves. So brazenly shocking and yet utterly practical in the heat. Neither did he wear a wig, his hair cropped short - dark hair, somewhere between chestnut and cocoa. He was a larger man than Livy had expected, although not in the corpulent way of cooks, but in a bear-like, muscular way that unsettled her.
Fascinated, she stared. Blake stilled, and turned slowly. To her utter mortification his fixed her with a glare. It was as if he'd known she was watching, and his insight made her tremble. His brow set in a frown over dark, unblinking eyes. Perhaps it was because she had not broken her morning fast, but suddenly her legs shook. Plumbing reserves of composure, she donned the mask she had worn when Ernest was in one of his moods: a neutral expression verging on haughtiness.
Above average height, intense, dark, and muscular, Mr. Blake was indeed a striking man. A man. With a jolt Livy realised she saw him not as a cook, a chef, or tutor – but as a man, and one that made her insides flutter. Mentally, Livy shook herself. She chastised herself. It mattered not that Foxhall's sous chef was altogether younger, taller, and more manly than she had anticipated. She was here to gain employment.
A red-haired serving wench held out a serving platter for Blake's appraisal. As Livy watched, the girl tipped her head to one side, a blush rising on her cheek. Clearly the girl was smitten and for some reason that irritated Livy. But Blake dismissed the maid with a curt nod, oblivious to her flirtation.
            Larkin sniffed loudly.
"Coming, Ma'am?"
            Livy's mouth suddenly dry. "Lead on."

            A few seconds later Livy stood in front of Mr. Blake. Close to he was even more masculine than anticipated, why even his forearms were defined by muscle, strong, and eminently capable. Her heart beat unnaturally hard, so loud she worried he'd hear. But she need not fear for Mr Blake's attention was elsewhere as he turned to Larkin. To her surprise, his stern face softened.
            "How's the hand, lad?"
            "Much better, sir. That ointment you gave me helps a treat."
            Only then did Livy notice the boy nursed his right arm, the hand heavily bandaged.
            "Told you there is nothing better for burns." Sharp eyes that momentarily warmed, grew cold again as he appraised Livy. Under the weight of his stare, her insides quivered.
            "So who have we here?" Rich, deep, and mellow, even his voice discomforted her wits.
            Larkin's mouth screwed into a tight "O" as he struggled to remember. "This is…Miss…Mrs…" The lad looked mortified.
Livy stepped forward and spoke more primly than intended. "Mrs. Worth. I believe you are expecting me."
            His eyes narrowed; deep brown, fascinating eyes that a woman could lose her wits to. She blinked, and a whispering thought reminded her of the purpose of this visit. Livy wilted, but stood her ground, meeting his stare with outward composure.
Somewhat awkwardly, she thrust out a gloved hand in what she hoped was a business-like manner. Blake looked at it as if it were a snake and snorted dismissively.    "Dirty." He offered in belated explanation, spreading his dough-covered fingers for her to see.
            "Of course. How silly of me." Her tense shoulders dropped an inch, relieved that as usual she was over-thinking things, but making a show of herself in the process.
             "It is I who should apologize," although his tone suggested otherwise. "As you see, we are in the midst of getting service out. A damn fool…excuse my language", he dipped his head in apology, "time for an interview."
            Livy's stomach churned. This was her one chance to impress and it was slipping away through her fingers. She stood her ground.
            "It was Monsieur Durum himself, who arranged the time."
            "Did he by jingo?" Blake's gaze snapped to her face, and then she rather wished it hadn't as intense brown eyes interrogated hers. She held his gaze defiantly. He stilled.
His eyes narrowed thoughtfully, lingering on her face. She rather wished he would blink for his stare made her excrutiatingly uncomfortable. She felt transparent, but braced herself; there was too much at stake to back down. His eyes darkened and her cheeks burnt. She swallowed hard and refused to look away. It reminded her of childhood games of "stare" with her sister. His expression suggested he didn’t suffer fools and for a split second, years of self-doubt came flooding back. But recognising this as a test, Livy returned his glare and topped it with a glower.
“I want to be your apprentice.” She stated baldly.
"Do you now." He gave a none-commital grunt. “Well, that rather depends.”
“On what?”
“On whether you can cut it or not." He voice dropped so low she struggled to hear. "A busy kitchen is no place for a lady.”
Livy bristled. She anticipated this response and yet still it irked her. To be a lady meant to be shackled, servile, and bored. Well not this lady. She had been freed from the straight-jacket of marriage by the death of her husband, and she considered herself lucky. Now she was determined to stand on her own two feet, and failure was not an option she had considered.
Years of frustration at being under-estimated and ignored, made her bold.
"I can assure you, sir, I am well used to hard work and embrace it." She took a deep breath and let the words pour out.
             “I am a skilled cook and have studied extensively. My speciality is sugar-craft…”
Blake waved a dismissive hand. “Save me the lecture.” He leant close and fixed her with sensuous brown eyes glinting with derision. “Can you prepare complex dishes for thirty, forty, even fifty people and still get a course out on time?”
He waited for an answer, the silence intimidating. Instinct told her he would seize on any hesitation as a chance to dismiss her. As it was, he made to turn away. Her heart beat more quickly.
“I haven’t had that opportunity yet – which is why I’m here.”
 “Pah!” Blake clicked his fingers at Larkin. "Our guest is leaving, please see her out."
Anger born of injustice simmered and boiled over. All the late nights, the hours in a steaming kitchen, and the studying, she refused to be dismissed in this manner – not again. He made to walk away.
“Stop!” She lunged forward to grab his sleeve. Her fingers griped hard muscle and startled, she let go as if burnt. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…"
A low growl issuing from his throat. "Mrs. Worth, I am too busy for games."
"Please, just give me a chance.” She said, imploringly.
He stilled, his stare so fierce it scorched her. But she refused to look away. Her legs shook, had someone pushed her she would have tumbled, but still she met his gaze. For too long she had been bullied and she chose this moment to rebel. Her heart hammered so loudly she felt sure he would hear.  Something passed between, a moment of understanding. Almost imperceptibly he nodded.
 “Mrs Worth, I don't doubt your good intentions, but I simply haven’t the time for amateurs. You can see how hard pressed we are."
"Then let me help. Set me to work right now. Let me prove my worth."
He snorted, but then his expression grew thoughtful. "Very well, if it pleases you. Over there, the second hearth on the left. Nevis will be grateful for your help.”
“Thank you. You won't regret this.” She clasped her hands together. It wasn’t an auspicious start but it was something. Resolute, she made towards Nevis and stepped straight into the path of a server with a heavy tray. 
"Idiot, watch out!"
“Sorry…so sorry…”