With her friends, popular social media influencer, Chilli Laurent, is travelling by train from London to Paris, where she is intrigued by the man with moody green eyes.
Jaded French winemaker, Arno Tournier, can barely contain his distaste for the loud conversation going on by Generation Z in front of him. Trying to tune them out, he closes his eyes, only to be jolted by the girl with golden skin who falls onto his lap. Embarrassed at his instant attraction, Arno orders her off with a few scathing remarks.
At her hotel that night, Chilli sees the rude Frenchman and without his permission includes him in her video vlog. He grabs her camera, and during their tussle, Chilli ends up on his lap once again. Giving in to his attraction, Arno asks her one question. Chilli, avoiding his intense gaze, answers.
It should have been one night. Only one night became more and the lies were about to catch with them both.
Could they survive the fallout?
LOVE TO BELONG
LOVE TO BELONG
She was beginning to dislike it, but plunged ahead.
“Okay guys, I’m super excited. I’m at St. Pancras train station and finally on my way to Paris. Got my portable chargers, my favourite bag with all the pockets. Remember, it’s about convenience when you’re travelling,” she advised, with a swiftness she was famed for. “And look at this beauty,” Chilli aimed her camera to showcase the furry pink, totally impractical suitcase at her feet. “How cute.” Angling the camera back to her face, she fluttered her freshly in-filled eyelash extensions and giggled. “See you on the other side.”
With a sigh of relief, Chilli swivelled the camera screen into its housing, signed off and carefully placed the expensive camera into her bag, before grabbing the outrageous suitcase, entering the train, and making herself comfortable in First Class.
Ten minutes later, she was joined by her friends and fellow influencers, Candace Mason, and Vinny Sang.
They’d been friends via cyberspace for years, but had only met physically two years ago at a media conference in Berlin.
Fortunately, although beauty vloggers, Candace took the healthier, hemp, aloe vera, au natural approach, and Vinny’s content was wild and theatrical.
“So, what’s the deal?” Vinny asked, re-arranging his bucket hat on his head. His clothes were loud and vibrant, his hair shaved on one side from the left temple, right around the back of his head to the opposite ear and he sported a chin-length fringe tipped in platinum blonde. Last week it had been deep purple.
“We have the fashion shows and the after-party at the hotel.” Candace explained, checking her emails.
They talked about fashion, influencers, designers, who they wanted to interview and definitely what they’d hoped to be gifted.
For the three of them, content creation was big business. They each had followers in the millions. Two years in a row, Chilli was voted Social Influencer of the Year.
Yep, life was good, and she revelled in it.
“Love the hair, Chilli Pepper,” Vinny teased, using his nickname for her and reaching across the table to tug the strands sweeping over her shoulders.
Chilli leaned back out of his reach and shook her head. “You know the rules, Vinny,” she scolded seriously. “Don’t touch the lace front.” She wagged her finger at him in warning. She was wearing a prototype for a collection they had approached her to endorse from an American wig manufacturer. It was a shoulder-length brown bob with a deep parting on the left. Apparently, if she sprayed a little water on it, the bone straight strands would turn into a tousled wavy beach babe look. She was going to try that later when she changed for the party, although she had a long wavy lace front wig as backup in case it didn’t work.
Chilli had been creating content for years and covered everything from fashion trends and makeup to talking about her daily life and pop culture.
She collaborated with large, well-known brands. Wearing their clothes and using the products that had been sent to her. And also shopping in their brick-and-mortar shops. Almost everything Chilli did was documented via video, and she shared her views publicly and was paid handsomely for it.
Anything Chilli endorsed, sold out and her last makeup tutorial had received over three million views in a few days. She was liked and in high demand.
She was aware she couldn’t rely on content creation as a stable income. The money was good but influencing fickle. Trends came and went. Popularity could disappear like a puff of smoke. It was becoming saturated, and Chilli was missing the enthusiasm she had had when she had started out. With the help of her staff, she was looking at other ways to monetise her brand.
Born in England, Chilli, whose real name was Chillitara Laurent, was bi-lingual and as comfortable in France, where her beloved grandmother lived, as she was in Britain and frequently travelled between the two countries.
“How’s life with the boyfriend going?” Candace asked, interrupting the pleasant thoughts of her grandmother, whom Chilli intended to visit before she left France in a few days.
Chilli sighed, thinking of Paul. He’d lasted all of three weeks and was only a boyfriend on paper. She couldn’t get past his large sweaty hands, much less have him kiss her. Besides, it soon became apparent he’d wanted to use her for her contacts for his T-shirt business.
“It’s not,” Chilli answered without remorse, barely concealing a shudder.
Vinny laughed. “You go through men like I go through–”
“Men,” Chilli finished for him with a teasing wink.
“Oh, touché,” he waved his hand about.
“Who knows, maybe we’ll both find somebody rich to snog at the after-party tonight,” Vinny declared.
Chilli laughed. “That’s right, we’re only snogging rich men from now on,” she proclaimed.
They high-fived each other as they laughed. None of them had much luck with relationships. Candace flittered from man to man. Vinny was continuously looking for a lover who could support his extravagant lifestyle and Chilli wasn’t looking to be in a relationship at all, but played along, contributing to their outlandish list of what Mr. Rich Man should be like.
Arno Tournier cringed and swiped his finger across the surface of his tablet a little too aggressively. The passengers in front of him laughed and talked loudly about their love lives. Generation Z, he thought, knowing he’d just about escaped that label being thirty-four himself.
Arno couldn’t concentrate on the blog he was reading and with a huff, put his tablet down and glared at them. The Generation Zs were gossiping with no consideration for the other passengers.
He was tired. He’d been in England for a nine o’clock appointment, and because of the lateness of one of his suppliers, the meeting hadn’t started until after eleven, ruining his entire day.
Arno slumped in his seat to rest his head against the headrest and closed his eyes. He wanted to return to the vineyard. He was a vigneron at heart, but with his grandfather’s steady decline in health, there was no one else to manage what he liked to call the sterile side of things.
Arno hated it. Hated life in Paris and couldn’t wait to head home. But his beloved grapes had to wait because of a conference in the morning.
A loud burst of laughter captured his attention, and there was nothing for him to do but look and listen to the conversation going on not three feet from him. Unfortunately, he’d forgotten his headphones so couldn’t tune the world, them, out.
The girl directly opposite was beautiful in a lanky blonde sharpness kind of way. She was probably a model or something, seeing the long willowness of her arms. Her shoulders protruded rather sharply from the cut-outs of her black top, and her breasts were small. She did nothing for him. Paris was full of women who looked like her.
He shifted his gaze to the girl sitting beside her. She was smaller, wearing a hot pink felt hat placed at a jaunty angle on her head. Her features were soft, and her face was round. A dimple played by the side of her mouth. Her complexion was dark gold, and the hair poking out from under the hat was slightly darker. She was wearing a long-sleeved black, V-necked, T-shirt thing, and the hands that she waved expressively about were tipped in hot pink too.
He mentally rolled his eyes. High maintenance was stamped all over her. And as for the vicious way she dismissed her boyfriend, Arno knew the poor bastard had had a lucky escape.
He closed his eyes and didn’t open them again until jolted by someone landing on his lap.
“I’m so sorry,” Chilli apologised in a rush, trying to get up. But between the table at her back and the hard-muscular chest at her front, not to mention the arms now holding her, she couldn’t move. “I tripped on something.” She explained, trying to wriggle free.
Arno looked at her. Up close, her skin was flawless, her eyes the darkest brown he had ever seen. They could even be black. Her eyelashes were very long and thick and her lips full and tempting. He had to force the inappropriate urge to lean forward and run his tongue along her succulent bottom lip from his thoughts.
“I’m sure that you did,” Arno drawled, gritting his teeth when his body reacted to the soft cushion of her bottom. She was well within her rights to slap his face and call him a pervert, knowing she couldn’t help but feel the hard ridge of his lengthening arousal beneath her. He’d gone too long without a woman and couldn’t remember the last time he’d enjoyed the smoothness of a woman’s thighs locked around his waist.
Chilli gasped at his harsh tone and heaved herself up. Or she tried to. She’d noticed him earlier as she’d waited for her friends. He was hard to miss with his deep olive skin tone, and dark wavy hair she’d had the mad compulsion to touch and remembered curling her fingers into a fist to control the tingling.
From a distance, she hadn’t been able to make out his eye colour, although they hadn’t looked run-of-the-mill brown. Now, with only inches between them, Chilli was fascinated to see they were deep forest green. Funny how the colour reminded her of the dream she’d had this morning.
It was weird, and she knew there was some psychobabble explanation about it, but she dreamt in one colour. She thought it was some kind of premonition or something, so whatever colour it was, she’d always wear it close to her skin that day. The dark green of his eyes matched the colour of her satin bra and panty set perfectly.
His shirt was unremarkable, plain crispy white. She glanced down to see what colour his trousers were. Please don’t be black, she prayed silently to herself and looked down to stare at the patch of cloth between her legs. His trousers were dark. Black, or maybe navy, she mused curiously, but with a stripe running through it and she peered to discover what colour the line actually was.
“Do you mind?” Arno barked. The girl was practically looking at his crotch. Did she have no shame?
“What?” Chilli looked at him wide-eyed.
Arno all but growled. “Get up!”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Chilli declared, with an embarrassing gasp, “you see I have this thing about colours,” she explained quickly. “I wanted to see what colour your trousers were, if they were like your eyes or boring like the rest of the suits on the train.” She tipped her head towards the businessmen in the carriage, clear by their white shirts, generic ties, and black trousers.
Chilli, feeling the heat still scorching her cheeks and thankful her skin was dark enough to disguise her embarrassment, wriggled about, trying to lever herself up without touching his chest or wrapping her arms around his neck.
“I’m really sorry,” she repeated with difficulty. It was as though he’d sucked in all the air surrounding them and her heart was struggling to beat. He continued to stare into her eyes as though she were a crazy person, before dropping his gaze to track all over her body. “Can you at least help?” she ordered eventually. Everywhere his eyes touched sent tiny flames of awareness through her. If she could, she would fold her arms over her breasts to cover her peeking nipples.
Chilli wasn’t fat, but half-African genes ruled over her figure. She had curves. Curves that when growing up had been embarrassing, especially beside her petite French grandmother. Now she embraced them, but unfortunately, they were still the first thing men noticed.
Arno opened his legs, and she slid between them. He didn’t dare look at her, having already lost the battle with his body and just wanted to move her on as quickly as possible to save them both further embarrassment. He’d seen the heat in her eyes, the brazen sexual awareness as her nostrils flared. Her scent had changed, reminding him of the shift in the air when a summer storm was coming. He was close enough to see a flush of red gently touch her cheeks to sweep down her neck. He wanted to map the enticing colour with the tip of his tongue, knowing she was as aware of him as he was of her. The ever so slight rocking of her hips told him so. But this was neither the time nor the place. He did not pick up loud young women on trains.
Turning to his left, Arno twisted away, placed one hand on the back of the seat, the other on the table, and hauled himself up.
Chilli quickly scrambled out and stood to face him.
“Thank you, and again, I’m really sorry,” she said, hoping she didn’t sound as breathless as she felt. She didn’t know what this was, but wow.
“Think nothing of it, Mademoiselle,” his tone was formal, icy, and unpleasant.
Chilli gasped and stepped back in indignation. He made it sound as though she had intentionally fallen on him, and she wouldn’t be surprised if he checked his pockets for his wallet. Forget the wow, she thought, pursing her lips. She wanted to smack that arrogant sneer off his face, and she wasn’t a violent person.
Instead, Chilli tipped her chin up and spoke to him as he towered over her. He was tall, with broad shoulders she didn’t want to think about. He could be an athlete, she guessed, trying not to notice the distracting broadness of his chest. “I really did trip,” she defended tightly.
They both looked down, staring at the pale blue carpet with a narrow red line running through it. There was nothing to trip on.
“Run along,” Arno said, sitting down to pick up his tablet in a blatant display of dismissal.
With a chilling look, completely wasted as it landed on the top of his head, Chilli straightened her spine and went to the bathroom.
On her return, instead of sitting in her old spot, she sat beside Vinny. Her back to the rude Frenchman.
It was almost one in the morning.
After a late meal in the hotel restaurant, Arno made himself comfortable in the foyer. It was a beautiful space, decked out in creams, golds with deep red trimmings, that reminded him of the full-bodied Cabernet he produced.
His mouth twisted, and he shook his head at himself. He was such a wine freak and was precisely what one past lover had called him.
Five, no, six generations of prized winemakers coursed through his veins.
One past relative had planted vegetables with the vines and they had lost much of the vineyard to disease, and it had taken another generation to recover.
A sexy server walked over to him in a tight black skirt and white shirt that strained across her breasts. She flirted outrageously with him, and the thought of asking for her number almost tumbled from his lips. Paris was perfect for a one-night-stand.
Once he went home, it was long days in the vineyards and even longer nights in the office, doing the sterile admin things that bored the life out of him.
His last girlfriend had left him months ago or was it a year now? He mused, trying to recall what she looked like. He clenched his fists. The server, although pretty, wasn’t doing anything for him. He’d gone about his business with the girl on the train skirting the periphery of his mind all day, distracting him. The subtle scent of her perfume had clung to him. He’d felt the whisper of her breath across his skin when he should have been listening to one of his distributors. And he definitely remembered how her luscious bottom had felt pressing against him. Added together, and the memory of her had kept him in a state of semi-arousal all day. He wanted her. He should have got her number.
Arno declined the server’s invitation with a polite smile and ordered a glass of red wine. Hell, if he was in Paris when he wanted to be home, he may as well check out the competition, he thought, relaxing into the plush armchair.
The server walked away with a swing to her hips, and a look over her shoulder to let him know her offer was still open.
Arno pulled out his phone and checked his messages instead. There were plenty of emails, and he steeled himself, hating all the paperwork, and thought about hiring a firm to manage it all. Although felt like he was betraying his ancestors.
Tournier Wines was one hundred percent family-owned. He and his grandad were the only ones left. Past generations had killed off his workforce by not reproducing enough, Arno mocked, saluting them with his glass.
The elevator doors opened with a soft ping, but it was the raucous laughter skittering across the polished porcelain tiles that made him look up with annoyance, and his breath caught. It was the girl from this morning with her loud friends. Did they never shut up? He thought with irritation, watching them and then her as she tipped her head back in laughter.
Her dress was sexy as hell, electric blue and soft looking. It looked complicated to put on. Much less take off. Rope-like things crisscrossed her otherwise bare stomach, connecting the top half of the dress to the skirt.
The rest of her body was covered from the hip down. Tight sleeves bellowed at her wrists, covering her fingers. It was dramatic and seductive, and he found himself wanting to lick those patches of skin on display at her waist.
Her hair was longer than this morning, and he frowned, knowing he’d thought it to be shoulder length on the train. Maybe it wasn’t her. Perhaps it was someone who looked like her? he thought, watching her closely. But no, her laugh was the same, her lips ripe and as kissable as he remembered, and, oh yeah, her bottom was definitely the same, peachy and pert, he noticed with a smirk appreciating her curves as she turned to link her arms with her friends when they made their way to the bar to his right.
He had been tired, but Arno suddenly felt excited, like when his grapes were ready to harvest.
The server brought his glass on a dainty brass tray, hovered for a moment, then, realising he really wasn’t interested, walked off without a wiggle to her bottom. Women. Arno laughed to himself, how fickle is thee, he misquoted.
With the glass held loosely in his hands, he looked at the colour, swirled it around, sniffed and then tasted, letting the wine slide along his tongue and fill his mouth. The flavour was good. His was better. Without thinking, he walked towards the bar with his glass, his tiredness gone.
Chilli saw him enter the dimness of the room and her heart skidded to a halt.
She was still on a high because style icon Annika had said her name in greeting and that high now shot to mega heights.
After pausing in the doorway, the man from the train sauntered over to one of the semi-circular seats and sat down, sliding to the centre. He was directly opposite to where Chilli was standing at the bar with her friends. She moved, turning her back to the room, knowing she could watch him openly via his reflection in the mirror behind the glass case.
The soft lighting from the five-fingered brass chandeliers scattered here and there lent a romantic feeling to the intimate room. It was a new modern hotel, yet the bar had a quaint 30s feel about it. A white piano with an enormous vase of red roses on top dominated an elevated stage, but Chilli didn’t see any of that. She was locked on him.
He was beautiful. Definitely French by the aristocratic angles of his cheekbones and jawline. His hair, brushed back from his face, was thick and glossy, but it could do with shaping, she noted.
Funny how this morning she took him to be a boring businessman, probably an accountant. Watching him now, his long fingers slowly smoothed up and then down the stem of his wine glass, she would say he was an artist or something else, passionately creative.
He could do with a makeover, though. His clothes were as boring now in dark trousers and a plain shirt as they were this morning. Yet there was an exciting restlessness about him. Chilli could feel it. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled up in defiance of rigid formality. He didn’t want to be here.
Their eyes connected via the mirror and Chilli could not look away. Neither acknowledged the other, and Chilli was grateful when the shots arrived, and she had an excuse to escape his intense gaze to pick up her glass.
Only she couldn’t help herself and watched him surreptitiously under her lashes, very much aware of him staring when she clinked her glass with her friends, toasting the success of the day. She spilt some and licked it from her fingers.
Almost defiantly, Chilli did another shot, even though her first drink still scorched a trail of fire down her throat. She raised her chin, noticing a single dark eyebrow lift ever so slightly as he watched on.
Chilli loved Vinny and Candace, but after twelve hours of togetherness, they were rattling her nerves. Thankfully, they were returning to England in the morning. However, she was staying on.
Tomorrow she was going to an all-day AXP Centennial Conference, a foreign exchange programme she had taken part in a few years ago. She was a guest speaker. Afterwards, she was going to spend time with her grandmother.
“Okay,” Chilli suddenly turned to Vinny and Candace, “I’m going to do a quick update, and then I’ll be back,” she promised, digging into her designer bag shaped like a gold cherry tomato and pulling out her beloved camera.
Chilli was looking for a quiet corner to film when he spied him. Boosted by the alcohol, she straightened her spine and walked over.
She really needed to call him something else ‘the man from the train’ made him sound like a serial killer, she acknowledged, giggling to herself before stopping in front of his table.
“Bonjour,” she greeted in French, “remember me?” she finished in English.
Chilli hovered by the table and licked her suddenly parched bottom lip. Now that his dark green gaze was trained on her, she’d lost her nerve. The tiny amount of alcohol she had consumed had rapidly evaporated under his sizzling stare. He was intense, his regard giving nothing away, although the fingers skimming his wine glass had stopped.
“I remember you,” Arno replied.
Chilli scooted in beside him. “Can I borrow your table for a moment?” she asked.
He canted his head to one side, then looked around the room before pinning her with his gaze, his forehead pleating into a puzzled frown.
Chilli beamed. “I’ll show you,” she invited. Opening her handbag, she carefully pulled out her beloved camera she called Frankie.
Knowing exactly how her camera worked, she adjusted the settings to facilitate the dim lighting in the room. She fluffed her hair and angled the camera just where she liked it–slightly above her–before turning somewhat. Then, clearing her throat, she smiled into the lens.
“Hi guys,” Chilli said, then talked excitedly about her evening and everything that had happened throughout her day.
Arno listened as she talked into her camera. She was talking about herself and reeling off names and details of her meal as though she were writing a diary.
She talked and talked and said something about rating her foundation ten out of ten.
Then repeated everything in French.
Arno found her speech fascinating as he listened keenly and deduced she didn’t live in France. Her pronunciation, though perfect, was accent-less.
“And finally,” Chilli turned towards the man from the train, “I’m going to find out his name,” she angled her camera at him for a split second, “And then ask him to buy me a drink.” She winked. “When in France...?” Chilli left the rest unsaid.
“Thanks,” she said, placing her camera carefully on the table.
“What was that?” Arno asked.
“I’m a content creator,” she explained, but at his baffled look went on. “Vlogger.”
“Blogger?” he’d heard of the stuff people wrote on the internet were called blogs and read many articles on the winemaking industry, but he didn’t delve much further than that.
“No,” Chilli explained. “Vlogger. I don’t write about things so much anymore. I film myself talking instead. It’s more exciting.”
“Isn’t that, how you say?” he cocked one silky brow at her. “Pretentious oui?”
“What’s pretentious about giving people an honest diary of my life?”
“The fact you are giving people a diary of your life?” he shot back.
He didn’t quite sneer, but it was there, hovering in the corner of his well-shaped mouth. Chilli really hoped he would not disappoint her and be an arse, she thought. Good looking, but still an arse.
“Everyone loves my content,” she defended, losing the excitement of the day to his moody disapproval. “I have my own YouTube channel.” She announced, tipping up her chin.
His dark eyebrows dipped, and he reached over to pick up his glass. He swallowed down his wine disrespectfully–wine was supposed to be honoured across the palate–before turning to look at her.
“Is that what you will do?” he inquired. “Put it on YouTube for people to watch?”
“With me on it?”
Oops. Chilli should have seen where this conversation was leading.
“Not necessarily,” she hedged. But by the tilt of a single eyebrow, knew he knew she was lying.
Time to go. He was an arse, she thought, fighting her disappointment and scooting across the seat, but he grabbed her camera and put it on the other side of him, out of her reach.
“Hey!” Chilli gasped in horror, nobody touched Frankie, “give that back!”
“As I see it,” Arno charged, fighting to keep from smiling. “You took my image without my consent. I own that image.” He declared. “I now own your camera.”