Lita swore softly and tucked the bleeding finger into her mouth. The sharp pang passed quickly, but she could taste the tangy copper trickling down her throat. Marcus glared at her from across the room and yelled something in French. Lita didnâ€™t pay her boss any attention; instead, she reached for the roll of duct tape, rinsed and dried the finger, and wrapped the silver substance around the cut. Not the most sanitary of band-aids, but it was the best when one worked as a chef. Chefâ€™s assistant, Lita mentally corrected with a grimace. Four years of not working had softened her hands and faded her scars, all her previous experience meant nothing except sheâ€™d have to start over from the bottom of the pile again. She finished chopping the hard, slippery carrots that had caused the injury, and swept them into the waiting sautÃ© pan. Marcus swept by, whisking the pan over to a different part of the range.
It was almost eleven thirty, closing time, and the busy night was slowly winding down. Lita shrugged her sore shoulders and wiggled her toes inside her comfortable sneakers. After seven hours on her feet, even they felt like lead shoes. Marcus would make her stay and wash dishes, though, just another of his little digs. He didnâ€™t like the fact that Lita had once been a head chef, didnâ€™t like the fact that she often took control and fixed problems, didnâ€™t like her â€œsaucy attitudeâ€. Lita didnâ€™t like him much either. For three weeks now, sheâ€™d refused to bow and scrape to the pompous Frenchman, whose talents were acceptable, but not stellar.
â€œThe boss is showing up tonight.â€ The soft words were followed by a high-pitched sigh. Lita smiled a bit at Mara. The younger girl was fresh out of school, and always full of gossip. Lita pulled the last order off the printer and smiled slightly.
â€œAccording to Marcus, heâ€™s the boss.â€ Mara giggled, the sound soft but girlish. Lita glanced around sharply to see if Marcus had noticed the noise. He was lecturing some guy on how to chop onions correctly. Lita smirked.
â€œOnly of the kitchen. I mean the owner. They say heâ€™s absolutely gorgeous.â€ She gushed the last words, her voice gradually rising. Lita shook her head but couldnâ€™t help the grin on her face.
â€œAccording to you, every man on earth is gorgeous.â€ Lita had mimicked the younger girlâ€™s inflection exactly when saying the last word. Mara rolled her eyes. Lita continued in a quieter, even tone. â€œBesides, if you donâ€™t keep your voice down Marcus will be over here in a flash.â€ Mara merely shrugged. The two women worked in perfect harmony, finishing the order quickly and efficiently, while Marcus continued to flit around the kitchen shouting orders. But Lita ignored him, her mind filled with thoughts of Kira, and hoping for a quick clean up job.
Nevin Walworth was in a foul mood. Heâ€™d been closeted with his restaurantâ€™s manager for fifteen minutes now, looking over the books. And he didnâ€™t like what he was seeing. Profits were down and expenses were up, again. It was the second time in four months heâ€™d dropped by the newest of his acquisitions. He liked to keep his employees on their toes, but considering how this particular restaurant always knew of his arrival, there was a spy somewhere in his office. It was late now, approaching one o'clock, but his mind was still sharp. The current head chef, Marcus, no last name, of course. Pompous prick. He was competent, but not much of a draw for the restaurant. The rough brick building was located in a less than perfect place for upscale French dining. The chef also tended to drive away any talented underlings with his prima donna attitude and abrasive personality. On the other hand, Marcus had been at the restaurant for more than fifteen years. He was loyal, if stupid, and Nevin hated to reward loyalty with a layoff notice. But the restaurant needed some kind of new draw to improve the weeknight turnout.
Nevin shook the managerâ€™s pale, clammy hand and left the office with a determined step. He headed toward the kitchen quickly. Most of the lights in the restaurant were turned off, casting shadows over the corridors and walls. He stopped short at the sound of laughter, female laughter, coming from the kitchen doors. He stepped inside slowly. He hadnâ€™t remembered any female employees under Marcus, but then again, with how often the chef assistants were replaced he never really got to know his employees. Few liked to work long under Marcusâ€™s dictatorship.
His eyes quickly adjusted to the dim lighting. There were two women bent over tubs of soapy water. They had their hair tucked under white hats, and their bodies concealed by shapeless aprons. One was short, and judging by the way the apron fell straight at her sides, thin and flat. The other was tall. Very tall. In fact he mentally placed her head just a few inches below his. Few women reached his shoulder, but this one would look him in the eye. She straightened for a moment, rolling her shoulders as if trying to dispel the tension in them. Then she bent over. Nevin smiled. Judging but the nice rear end currently displayed, she was rounded in all the right places. He glanced around and was surprised to find the rest of the kitchen deserted.
â€œWhy isnâ€™t Marcus here?â€ His tone was harsher than he would have liked, but his temper was taking over again. The man seemed to be begging for dismissal. Leaving the clean-up duty in the hands of just two underlings spoke of some sort of revenge. The shorter girl gasped and jumped, clearly surprised by his entrance. The other stood up quickly, smacking her head on the shelf above the sink. And then she swore, loudly, as she turned around.
For a long moment, there was complete silence in the room. Nevin stared at the woman, his brown eyes locked in her green ones. He felt a strange tingling, a sensation of connection, of purpose. As though heâ€™d met her hundreds of years ago and been forced to stay away by some sinister purpose. He shook his head a bit, clearing away his attraction and fanciful thoughts. Now wasn't the time.
â€œHe doesnâ€™t clean.â€ Her voice was just as he thought it would be, husky, sensual, pulling at him. It sent a shiver down to his toes. He closed his eyes; desperate to break the contact, but he could still feel her presence. He opened them again and moved forward, hand outstretched.
â€œSorry for the bluntness. My name is Nevin Walworth and I own this establishment. I had a few questions for Marcus. Iâ€™m just surprised to see him not here; most chefs are a bit anal about making sure their kitchen is kept perfectly.â€ She smiled then, her bow lips curving into a grin.
â€œMarcus always leaves at midnight, whether the work is done or not. Lita Evans, nice to meet you. And this is Mara Quinn. Weâ€™ve only been working here for about three weeks, when the last batch terrorized by Marcus quit.â€ She took his hand and shook it firmly. Nevin was unprepared for the jolt of physical attraction that intertwined with some kind of mental connection. He took a deep breath.
â€œLitaâ€¦thatâ€™s a beautiful name.â€ He knew he was ignoring the other female and didnâ€™t care. â€œIâ€™m glad there are some competent people working here.â€ Lita raised a single brow, her expression skeptical.
â€œSome would say thatâ€™s your fault.â€ Nevin took the well-aimed blow easily. Long ago, heâ€™d learned to roll with the punches. But he hadnâ€™t let go of her hand. He didnâ€™t think he ever would.
â€œMaybe I just havenâ€™t found the perfect employees yet. Perhaps youâ€™d care to go grab a coffee and discuss my shortcomings in hiring?â€ The warmth and laughter in Litaâ€™s eyes died instantly. She jerked her hand back, her voice becoming brisk and businesslike.
â€œSorry, but Iâ€™m married. Thanks for the offerâ€
The words echoed in Nevinâ€™s mind for a long time afterward. He hardly remembered leaving the kitchen with a charming comeback. He didnâ€™t recall penning the note condemning Marcus to a job search, or even driving home. All he remembered was the ice in her voice, the finality of her words. The perfect woman and she was married.