“Come on, guys, get a move on! Tables six and eight are still waiting for their mains!” I bellowed, struggling to restrain myself. My blood was about to boil over. I’d only opened my new restaurant two months ago, so there was no room for error. We couldn’t afford to be making rookie mistakes. It was Friday night, and the place was hopping.
“Yes, boss!” said Clark, one of my sous-chefs. He was a young rabbit omega, and he was overly congenial. Annoyingly so. It made sense—he was deferential to me because I was a fox shifter, but I found his fear a bit insulting as well. Maybe he thought I was ready to pounce and tear him apart at any given moment. But that wasn’t my style. That wouldn’t mesh with my image as a fair boss. Besides, it would be a pretty shitty thing to do.
“Good, keep it up,” I said, watching meal after meal be plated, checking each one with a quick glance. “Keep them happy and coming back, damn it!”
I took a deep whiff of the delicious aromas wafting through the kitchen, nodded my approval, then wandered over to the entrance of the dining area, careful to stay out of sight, hidden behind the wall.
I peeked out and scanned the dining room, which was full of townsfolk loving my food. Pride filled me, and my lips curled up into a smile. I’d come so far. From nothing…to something.
Even after what I’d done and everything I’d been through, the universe found it apt to forgive me and reward me for my hard work. My eyes stung and tears threatened to well up, but I nipped that shit in the bud immediately.
It wasn’t fitting for an alpha to cry at work. Or anywhere else, for that matter. I didn’t want to think about the past. Only the future. Because that’s what really mattered, nothing else.
I cleared my throat. I should have headed back to the kitchen, but an inexplicable force told me to stay put. My good friend Garrett and his omega Adam were sitting at table five. I’d reserved it especially for them, because Garrett had told me they were hosting an out of town family friend. I was once Garrett’s personal chef, and we’d become close friends over the course of those years. He’d always have a table at my restaurant.
I couldn’t see the front door from where I stood, but a familiar scent caught my nose, and I sniffed three times in quick succession. Someone new had come into my restaurant. The aroma of cloves and vanilla stood out distinctly. This stranger was already grabbing my attention, and I couldn’t wait to see who it was.
In a moment, I was rewarded. A tall, lean man I could best describe as ethereally beautiful strode in, spoke a few words to Victoria, our hostess, and followed her to the table where Garrett and Adam waited patiently.
Time stood still as my heart raced and my mouth watered. I could see nothing but him. Everything about him got burned into the deepest recesses of my soul and I stared at him as if in a trance. I recognized him, as if from a dream, and felt a pull toward him, a need to have him near me, to be close to him.
I couldn’t rip my gaze away from him. His movements were smooth and confident, not to mention elegant and measured. The angles and lines of his face were perfect. That much was clear even from a distance. Who was this stranger Garrett and Adam were meeting? I had to find out.
“Chef, there’s a situation,” one of my cooks said meekly. He’d come out of the kitchen just to find me, so it must’ve been serious.
I growled. What the fuck was it this time?
The kitchen needed my attention, and I had to leave my hiding spot behind the wall. Lucky for me, the sexy stranger took a seat facing the kitchen, so anytime I wanted to come back for a peek, getting my fix wouldn’t be much trouble at all.
Better yet, I could go out and say hello to Adam and Garrett, and they’d introduce me to this hottie. Yes, I liked that plan.
I spent a few minutes helping in the kitchen, then headed to the bathroom to wash my hands and take a look in the mirror.
Once my hands were scrubbed clean, I smoothed down my blond hair. Didn’t want any stray flyaways. Sure, I’ve been the subject of a few ribbings because of my supposed vanity, but I didn’t give a shit.
I didn’t think I was better than anyone, but I had to feel comfortable in my skin, and I wanted to look good. Besides, today I had an excuse for my vanity. I wanted to leave the best impression I could on Adam and Garrett’s friend, and I couldn’t very well do that if I looked like an unkempt hobo.
My upbringing back in Sweden also had something to do with this peculiarity of mine. My parents, who just so happened to be the ruling royals—so, yes, I was the crown prince, damn it—had always put me under intense pressure to look perfect, act perfect, be perfect…all in the name of family image.
It was stifling, but it rubbed off on me. Thank goodness I was free of them now. And free of the dark cloud hanging over me back home.
The story of how I’d killed a man was the story of the century throughout Europe at the time. Oh, how they all gloated over my fuck up. The event itself was horrible, of course, but the press took great liberties in describing the circumstances.
This is how it happened. I’d been dating a guy named Lars for a few months, and while it was nothing serious, I cared about him. Some freak started stalking him, though, and the police had a hard time tracking down the asshole. One night we were out at a club with a group of friends, and Lars had to go home early. I noticed about two minutes after he left that he’d forgotten his cell phone at our table, so I followed him out.
I hadn’t walked more than three minutes when I heard Lars yelling and crying for help in an alleyway, where his stalker stood above him, trying to rip his clothes off. I was over there in a flash and punched the guy in the head. Little did I know, but he had a pre-existing clotting issue and pretty much dropped dead of a stroke. Right then and there. The news blew up the airwaves, and I couldn’t leave the palace for months. How the fuck was I supposed to know he had some medical issue? All I was trying to do was save my boyfriend. But the press ate it up, and kept hounding me and my family.
The pressure eventually broke me, and my brother and I left without warning late one night, without so much as a word to our family. By the time a servant alerted them to the goodbye note we left behind, we were probably halfway across the Atlantic.
I was twenty-three at the time, and my brother, Rasmus, was twenty-one. We haven’t seen our parents for seven years. It made me sad to leave them, but at that point it didn’t feel like we had much choice. Royal life wasn’t for us and being the crown prince wasn’t my cup of tea. Rasmus took it a little harder than I did. He was the baby of the family, and in many ways, he was an immature twenty-one, and somewhat of a momma’s boy. Eventually, his melancholy gave way to hope for a new life, and he started taking pleasure in normal, day to day things.
It was a fucking nightmare, but things were different now. I sighed as I looked at my broad shoulders and rubbed my five o’clock shadow. The important thing was that no one knew our secret. That’s what it was—a secret we intended to take to our graves. Our family was still looking for us, but we had no intention of being found.
I adjusted my collar for the last time and headed for the dining room. My gaze fixed on the handsome and elegant stranger sitting with Adam and Garrett. His eyes were magnetic, his lips were lush and full, and all I could think as I approached the table was how badly I wanted to feel those lips on mine.
He broke out in a laugh at something Garrett said. He had deep dimples when he smiled. His black, slightly wavy hair was perfectly styled and I felt an urge to reach out and run my fingers through it.
He looked at me and time seemed to stop as we made eye contact. My fox struggled to control itself. It’d been a long time since I shifted involuntarily, and it would’ve been a disaster if it happened in the middle of dinner service. The only time my fox might threaten to take over against my will was when I was jealous or when I was immensely attracted to a man, which didn’t happen often. This stranger was definitely a special case.
My gaze flitted to Adam and Garrett, who’d turned their heads to see whom their guest was looking at.
Our faces instantly lit up with huge smiles. It had been a while since I’d last seen them—this restaurant was eating up all my free time and it was hard to make any plans with friends, new or old.
“Hi, guys. It’s great to see you,” I said, giving them each a hug as they stood to greet me. ”How are the kids? I’m gonna have to see them soon!” Adam and Garrett had two sets of adorable triplets. They were the perfect family, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a pang of envy. But that pang never lasted for long. I valued my independence and was happy to concentrate on my restaurant.
“They’re doing great. We’ll definitely arrange something soon. They miss you too,” Adam said.
“Nice to finally see you too, Axel,” said Garrett. “Huge congrats on the restaurant. I knew it was gonna be a success when I was here for the grand opening, but had no idea it would be such a hit.”
I couldn’t help but blush. I’d worked hard on my dream and was ecstatic to get recognition for it. I glanced at the handsome stranger sitting across from Adam and Garrett. There was something familiar about him, but it wasn’t his looks. No, it was his scent. I couldn’t place it, but he had a faint but distinct scent that I’d come across in the past.
Adam noticed me checking out their guest again, and spoke up. “Axel, this is Victor. Victor, meet Axel. Axel’s an old friend of ours, and the best chef you’ll ever meet.”
Victor’s eyes sparkled as he offered his hand. I shook it, and the jolt of electricity his touch set off in my body was impossible to ignore.
“Nice to meet you, Axel,” Victor said, with a twinkle in his eye.
“Same here. Welcome to my restaurant. We’ve never met before. Are you new in town?” I struggled to keep my tone neutral and not let on that I was ready to mate him then and there.
Victor looked down and then shot a look at Adam and Garrett before turning back to me.
“Yes, but only temporarily. I’m Victor McMurtry.”
I gulped as the news sunk in. Holy shit. Did I hear that right? McMurtry?
Garrett must have noticed my reaction, because he caught Victor’s eyes and said in a low voice, “He knows.”
Victor hesitantly met my gaze. “Yes, it’s true. I’m of the McMurtry clan.”
“I see,” I said, not taking my eyes off him. A few years ago, Zoltan McMurtry, a notorious vampire, had caused a huge crisis by targeting Adam and his grandmother, Mrs. Nelson. No one had forgotten the trouble he’d caused, and people were understandably wary of the remaining vampires in town and those in the surrounding towns and villages.
I didn’t know what to say—I wasn’t going to judge a man based on one bad apple in his family, that’s for sure. Especially not a man as hot and special as Victor.
My gaze locked on his. His eyes were deep and mysterious. He smiled, but his eyes revealed a sadness that made me want to reach out and take his face in my hands. The candlelight at the table highlighted his elegant, high cheekbones and his deep set eyes.
Finally, I was forced to make myself scarce. A server approached and told me I was needed in the kitchen again. I smiled and nodded at my friends, and hurried back to see what the problem was.
Back in the kitchen, I kept sneaking peeks whenever I had the chance. He was just so hot and irresistible. I couldn’t wait to get to know more about him, but I didn’t know what to think—he was a vampire. Was he willing to get to know a fox shifter like me? I had to find out. I’d never rest until I at least made a decent effort.
It was a busy night at the restaurant, leaving no time for a break. A late appetizer. A cold main. Overcooked fish. It was enough to make me crazy. Mistakes were bound to happen, and thankfully they didn’t happen too often. But even one time was too many.
Finally, I went to say bye to Adam, Garrett, and Victor when I saw they were about to leave, and I couldn’t help but notice that Victor had an intoxicating scent, totally unlike his late cousin, who smelt of stale blood. Garrett must have noticed me checking Victor out because when no one was looking, he brought his hand to his ear to signal he was gonna call me. I watched them walk out, and regretted that I wasn’t more forward. Fucking coward. I should have slipped him my number or something. Oh, well. I’d call Garrett and find out everything I needed to know, and make my next move accordingly.