If you’re still on the fence about buying it, hop back and read chapter one here, and then come back to THIS VERY PAGE to read chapter 2!!! :D
Getting paid to be nice to rich people was exhausting.
Andi had warned her about that—actually, she’d said, “Try sick, rich people, they’re twice as bad” —but now that Sammy didn’t have to pay rent, she’d decided to job hop a little. And when a friend of a friend had told her about an opening at Belissima’s, she’d mentioned it to Andi, who’d almost certainly had Damian put a good word in, and the hostessing job there fell into her lap.
She circled the block in her Subaru WRX looking for parking, and Ernesto, working the restaurant’s valet stand, took pity on her, flagging her down when she’d made her third loop.
“Need a hand?” he asked as she slowed and lowered her window.
“Yes, please!” She was already fifteen minutes late and who knew what mood Bastian was in tonight.
He whistled up the next valet and made a gimme-motion for her keys. She practically leaped out of the car and tossed them to him. “You’re a life-saver!”
“Yeah, I know,” he told her with a grin, handing her keys off to the next uniformed man.
She paused right outside the restaurant’s tall glass doors to compose herself. At first, hostessing had seemed interesting and fun. Challenging, even, to get used to a whole new workflow and way of being. And getting to dress up every night was nice—she had to admit that working downtown was a whole lot snazzier than the car shop. She could have manicures now that lasted even.
But over the past month, the dark reality of the situation had begun to settle in.
Because if the naysayers at the car shop talked to her long enough, they’d eventually realize she knew what she was saying. Sometimes it was like she could feel them finally acknowledge she was there after she talked about torque or turbo lag.
But at Belissima’s…there was never going to be any equality. Not really. She was paid all right, but she saw the cars people brought up to the valet stand. (And not for the first time had she thought she might be happier out there, driving around other people’s expensive vehicles, except for the fact that she knew she probably shouldn’t be trusted with them. Just because she’d never gotten arrested when she’d done dumb shit with Danny didn’t mean she hadn’t deserved it….)
No, the people who came to Belissima’s were just better than you, and they generally weren’t afraid if you knew it. Most of them were pleasant…it was just that the ones that weren’t, the ones who treated Sammy like surprise gum on a Jimmy Choo heel, were so tragically awful that it wiped the memories of the relatively decent vast majority away.
It felt like someone yelled at her at least once a night. The first week, she’d assumed the problem was with her; the second week, she realized the problem was with them.
Men would schedule their anniversary dinners on the wrong day and it suddenly became her fault, or a party would get upset that you couldn’t accommodate an extra three people in the fancy room—which had limited seating! It was in a refurbished bank vault! You literally could not squish extra people in there, it was illegal! Or someone who she very clearly remembered double-checking their entire menu for their allergy considerations would still show up and, she didn’t know, pull a shrimp from home out of their Birkin and pretend that it’d magically appeared in their salad. It was weird. Rich people were weird. And everyone was unhappy when they didn’t get their way.
At the car shop when someone was an asshole, she could generally give as good as she got. Her old boss didn’t mind and he’d never heard of Yelp. But Bastian was a restauranteur. He actually gave a shit, and Sammy knew he had a reputation to maintain. People weren’t going to pay twenty-two dollars for shrimp-less salads at a one-star kind of place.
And he was also a yeller, which Sammy just didn’t like. Camaraderie yelling was fine; like in the bleachers during sports games or checking in to see if everybody was getting their shit done, that was okay. But four drinks by the end of the night yelling…was not.
Which was probably why, subconsciously, she’d started running a little late to work each day this week. Like her feet were smarter than she was and just didn’t want to put her body through the rest of the drama. Feet that she rewarded with flats, although Andi’s Danskos were looking comfier by the day….
“You’re late, again,” Jeanine told her as she checked in. She was Bastian’s floor manager and had a seemingly psychic ability to avoid getting yelled at. In fact, Sammy wasn’t sure she could ever remember seeing Jeanine and Bastian together in the same room—maybe they had a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation going on.
“I couldn’t find parking, I’m sorry,” Sammy said, not really sorry at all. There was glassware to polish and a stack of menus to fold, and Sammy started in, dodging around Jeanine’s disapproving presence for the menus Bastian had printed off for tonight.
“Look, if I could get paid to avoid all this crap, I would, but I can’t, and neither can you, so, adjust your schedule to allow time for parking—or else your pretty little accent and your pretty little ass won’t be able to save you.”
Sammy bit back a retort and nodded. “Got it.”
The doors opened at 6 p.m. and the first wave of customers came in, older people who liked to eat early and go home to bed. It was easier then; no one had to wait for tables, so everyone got seated quickly and usually they just made small talk. It was nice and Sammy made sure to keep her Irish accent ‘on’ because she reminded them of past vacations, which led to fond memories and higher tips, even though at least once a shift someone would start to ask questions.
“What part of Ireland are you from, dear?” asked a woman with perfectly coiffed white-as-a-Q-tip hair.
Sammy smiled at her. “I’m not. I live in the Laurel district. My parents were from a small town in County Mayo.”
“Oh, that’s so nice! It’s so beautiful there. We used to go there every few years, on vacation, didn’t we, Charles?” the woman told her husband, expecting him to chime in.
He cupped a hand behind his ear where Sammy could see the tiny pigtail of a hearing aid. “What was that?”
“County Mayo. On vacation! Remember?”
“Oh! Yes. Lovely place! So many sheep everywhere!”
Sammy’s smile ratcheted a few microns tighter. “So I hear,” she said. But hearing’s all she’d ever done. She’d never put a foot on Irish soil herself. Her parents had always planned to take her when she was older, but it was always easier for her grandparents to visit her in the US, since they didn’t have jobs and her parents did, and then one by one they died and flying “back home” as a family for funerals was always too expensive and possibly too sad until everything went to hell and it was too late.
Because after one family trip to the beach, she and her parents had had a horrific encounter with a mysterious, violent stranger—and an eight-year-old Sammy was the only one who’d come back alive. She’d gotten a brief flash of notoriety and then been turned over to the foster system, where the kids had made fun of her until her accent had mostly faded away. And now that she was twenty-six, she only used her ‘pretty little accent’ because it felt like all she had of her past, but even then she knew it was a relic unless she was being silly, emotional, or drunk, or playing on the sympathies of elderly white people.
The woman who’d just sat down cleared her throat, waiting for Sammy to hand her a menu. “Thinking of the Bunratty Castle?”
No. Only castles made out of sand. “Yeah,” Sammy said, with an apologetic headshake.
“No problem, dear,” the woman said, putting a warm hand on Sammy’s arm, as Sammy blinked herself back to the present and handed them their menus.
“I hear the salmon is really amazing today,” she told them before quickly excusing herself.
At eight, the ‘grown-ups’ came in, people who might spend as much on alcohol as they did on the food, considering Belissima’s vast wine cellar, and Sammy was glad she wasn’t the sommelier, Salvatore, although she did find the man unbearably snooty.
She hadn’t quite figured out how snoot adjacency worked. Like how long did one have to work here before you thought you were rich yourself and started looking down your nose at Applebee’s and saying things like, “Two-thousand-seven was a great year for pinot?” She knew if she stayed here, it was coming for her; it seemed to have afflicted everyone else who worked here, with the exception of the valet team, and that, she thought, was because they were lucky enough to be working outdoors.
She had enough money to afford to look nice, but other hostesses definitely looked nicer and, what, did they do nothing but shop on Poshmark for deals on designer stuff all morning? Or did they just let more of the clientele hit on them and wind up dating people who could give them gifts?
Speaking of, she fished the little peridot ring out of her blazer’s inside pocket and slid it on because here they came—guys from the financial towers downtown, maybe even some who worked for Damian, rolling in to visit the bar and bullshit about their days, raking her with their eyes. The ring was for them so that in addition to looking professionalish, she always looked a little bit taken.
And it helped with the attached women who came in for their fancy dates, anniversaries, or birthdays—the fake engagement ring made her look safer to them, too. Samantha O’Connor was not lonely, and she was not here to steal your man, no-siree, she was just here to safely guide you to your table.
There was a brief lull for no good reason around eight-forty and a well-dressed couple came in, looking like they’d already pre-gamed a little down the street, giving her unreasonably expectant smiles. Sammy tensed. She knew that look.
“Do you have any tables open tonight?” the man asked.
“Just the bar,” Sammy said, glancing back. “We can serve food there; there might be some seats, let me check?”
“No,” the woman told her. “We need a table. It’s important.”
“I’m so sorry. All of our tables have been booked for weeks.”
And this was where the snoot would’ve come in handy because if she just could’ve acted somehow like they belonged here less than she did, she might have been able to deflect them, but—
“I see one, right there,” the woman said, pointing an exquisitely manicured nail through the semi-frosted glass behind Sammy.
“Yes, well, are you….” Sammy began, consulting the books, and then remembered what a bad idea that was, because people were not above lying sometimes, and once they were seated, it was impossible to gracefully kick them out, things were sure to end in tears. But then she saw an annotation in the reservation book in Bastian’s thick, blocky handwriting.
Rax Janvier—single top. Give him anything he wants.
‘Give him anything he wants’ was underlined. She licked her lips as the man in front of her in the bespoke suit waited expectantly, perhaps hoping he could be a Smith.
“Mr. Janvier?” Sammy asked, trying to say the last name right and having no idea if she was accomplishing it or not. At this point, she was more curious to see if these people would just boldly lie.
“Yes, of course. And that’s my table,” the man said, giving the woman with him a look.
What was this to them—some kind of game?
“I’m sorry, but I’m going to need to see ID,” Sammy said.
The man’s eyes widened. “Who are you? Are you a cop? Are you carding me?” His voice stepped up in volume with each phrase, and Sammy knew it was only a matter of moments before it carried back to Bastian, who was surely hitting drink three by now.
Then, behind the couple, through the tall glass doors, she spotted a man getting out of a 1972 dark metallic blue E-type Jaguar at the valet stand—legitimately the world’s sexiest car. Garrett, one of her foster brothers who’d gotten her into cars, would’ve wept to get to see one in person, and as it was, she was having a moment. And then the owner got out of it. He walked into the restaurant alone with the kind of stride that said he had places to be, and even through the glass, there was something about him. His hair was dark and wavy, barely tamed by whatever he’d put in it, his skin was the kind of brown that came naturally and stayed that way, and his eyes were—she looked away before she could see them, because if she saw them, then he’d catch her staring and—she returned her attention to the couple in front of her, even as her hands found one another and she slid the peridot ring from her left hand to her right hand quickly.
“I refuse to show you ID until you show me to my table,” the man in front of her went on.
“Mr. Janvier?” Sammy guessed as the man from outside strode forward, giving him a look that said, rescue me? He frowned at her lightly, maybe not a frown, more of a pensive look like he was wondering if he’d ever seen her before. Sammy was very sure he hadn’t. But now that she could stare a little, his eyes were a shade of rich amber.
“Yes,” he said, coming up to the side of the host stand, looking impatient.
She glared at the two people who’d just lied to her, picked up a menu, and said, “Right this way.”
Rax sat down at the table the woman directed him to, which had been conveniently set to face a nicer view toward the back of the room and the windows, and he didn’t like that.
First off, because he wasn’t comfortable not having his back against a wall—and the windows counted as a wall, more so than the rest of the space in the room did, and secondly, the hostess. Whom he didn’t recognize. But he hardly ever ate out, although this was the only restaurant he went to when he did, on the rare occasions he had events to celebrate and felt like dipping into someone else’s wine cellar. There was no reason for him to remember Bastian’s prior hostess, or the one before that and so on.
Except—he rearranged his seat to be on the other side of the table, moving all of his place settings until the windows were at his back and he’d given himself a view of the hostess stand. The lightly frosted glass couldn’t hide her from him; in fact, it made him feel freer to stare, as though she were an exotic animal trapped at a zoo. From his new position he could easily make out her disappointingly sensible flats, which led up to creamy calves dotted with light freckles, and those led up to her possibly pert ass—and as if hearing his mind’s silent plea, she pulled off her blazer and folded it neatly, tucking it onto the shelf with the menus beneath the stand.
He drummed his fingers on the white tablecloth in front of him.
Who was she?
And—why did she radiate magic?
He didn’t take his eyes off of the woman as the server took his order. He knew what he was having, the same thing he always did when he was here to remember the anniversary of his release from imprisonment. If it wasn’t currently on the menu, he knew Bastian would make it for him.
He folded his hands in front of him, still considering the girl. Anyone wandering through life with that much magic on them should know better. Know to stay shielded. Hide it when they were out, lest they attract unwanted attention.
Like his, he thought darkly.
She was beautiful, yes, even though her dark blue eyes were set a little too wide, and her chin was a little too narrow. Freckles dusted her pale peachy skin, and her red hair was barely tamed by the bun she’d wrapped it up in; there were licks of curls springing free by her ears and against her neck. So he might have even found her entrancing, regardless, despite the fact she smelled entirely human when she’d led him to his table—but the field of power practically pulsing off her guaranteed she’d intrigue him. And what was more, her magic had a familiar tinge to it. He licked his lips…he’d been alive a very, very, long time. He’d encountered all sorts of energies. Of course everything felt vaguely familiar. There wasn’t much in this world that could surprise him anymore. Or in any of the others.
But she seemed familiar somehow, even though that was impossible.
“Can I interest you in a glass of wine, Mr. Janvier?”
Salvatore, Belissima’s obsequious sommelier, came over with his hands folded behind his back and blocked his view. Rax’s gaze flickered up at him. Here was a man who made his living by recommending rarified gastronomic experiences, which was in a way, Rax supposed, like what he offered at his casino, except the experiences he recommended there were more costly and occasionally violent.
Rarified nonetheless, though.
“I’ll take a bottle of whatever you think pairs best with my order,” Rax said, instead of asking for what he really wanted: a bottle—and the woman.
But he could just as easily drink and contemplate her from his table. She wasn’t going anywhere else until close, and maybe between now and then he could figure out why it felt like he knew her.
Sammy felt Mr. Janvier’s gaze on her, tracing down the back of her body like a lover’s hand, and she hoped she was far enough away from him that he couldn’t see the prickles of her gooseflesh.
Had he really just switched his place setting around to see her better?
At first, she assumed she was just making it up for her pride’s sake—he was the hottest man she’d seen in months, and she was bouncing back from being cheated on. She would’ve been lying if she’d said she hadn’t wanted him to look.
But as she sat table after table of Belissima’s patrons she realized her fever dream was, in fact, reality. His eyes had a dark amber fire as they narrowed, watching her with intent, his chiseled jaw that was shaded by just the right amount of stubble clenched periodically, and his lips were pursed in contemplation.
As he stared.
She wasn’t sure how she felt about that. She’d taken off her blazer because it’d gotten hot—all right, she’d gotten a little hot and bothered there for a moment, right after he’d come in. But that could have been because of his car! And now she felt like she couldn’t put it back on without….
What, being rude and interrupting his show?
A show that a tiny part of her was all too willing to give him?
In fact, right now, she found herself comprised of too many parts to count. There was the common sense part of her, fueled by her childhood, past bad decisions, and her obsession with serial killer documentaries, and it was all: RUN GIRL RUN! But some other parts—just as loud! —were remembering the shock of seeing her so-called-boyfriend railing some other chick over a desk a few days ago, and as unfeminist as it was to welcome male attention at work, it felt good to have someone be interested.
Especially someone who looked like him because fucking hell.
Oh, Andi, I’m going to have such a story for you—
But then she remembered Andi was off in Italy.
Which was possibly where Mr. Janvier was from.
Or was the name French?
“Sammy?” asked Jeanine.
“Yes!” Sammy said, snapping to, as the manager gave the group of people coming through the door a meaningful look—and then ditched her.
She realized why a moment too late, as the person in charge of the group—a waif of a girl, all smiles and cheer, not much younger than Sammy, although it was clear she’d led a very different life—leaned over and happily exclaimed, “We’ve got the vault for nine-thirty!”
“Is everyone here in your group?” Sammy asked, hoping her quick headcount was wrong.
“Yes! Some friends came in from out of town and—”
This was why her manager had run off. So that they could play good-cop bad-cop—forcing Sammy to be the bad one. “I’m sorry, but that room only has space for eighteen people.” There were twenty-five tightly clustered people in the entryway right now, a group of swan-like young women and a few middle-aged-adults.
A ripple of horror moved through the group. Sammy could already feel the weight of their disappointment—and burgeoning anger.
“But my friends!” the girl protested with a pout as a man in a wool suit jacket trundled up, obviously the bad-cop of this group.
“Some of us flew all the way from Chicago for this!”
“That’s very far, and I’m sorry—”
“We’ll need another table then.” He was gruff and Sammy could feel him looking for an excuse to yell.
“That’s impossible, sir. We’re fully booked. All night. Every night. You have a room here—but it can only seat eighteen.”
“I won’t eat!” the original girl volunteered.
Sammy winced apologetically. “That doesn’t change things.”
“Then we’ll all go someplace else!” the man demanded and Sammy inhaled, bracing.
“You can do that. But—someone in your party,” she said, looking at the books, “a Donna Breeland, reserved that room with a credit card. You’ll be charged a thousand dollars for—”
“You’ll charge my wife for a room we can’t use? That’s preposterous!” The man slammed his meaty fists on the stand. “It’s my daughter’s birthday—” he began, inhaling to go on.
She’d met less entitled people carrying guns, back in her chop-shop days. “Is your daughter in charge of fire codes?” Sammy said, with an ‘I’m not even bothering to hide how fake this is’ smile. “I’m just trying to keep us legal, sir.”
The man’s jaw clenched and his eyes widened. “Get Bastian, now.”
“It’s not going to change anything—”
He planted a hand on either side of the hostess stand and leaned in. “Did you hear me?”
Jeanine chose that moment to swan in. “What’s going on?” she asked, ever-so-innocent, and Sammy had that wood-chipper feeling in her stomach like she was about to be ground up and fed to the wolves.
“This woman here was telling us that we can’t be accommodated!”
“Oh, no,” Jeanine said, looking at the reservation book over Sammy’s shoulder and then swinging her hips to get Sammy out of the way. “Mr. Breeland, there must’ve been some mistake, I’m so sorry!” Jeanine glared at Sammy for effect, and Sammy knew exactly what was going on.
She’d just become a human sacrifice.
“Let me go talk to Bastian right away and in the meantime, I’m sure Sammy can show eighteen of your guests to their tables.” Jeanine snapped her fingers twice like Sammy was some kind of dog. “Menus!”
Rax watched the scene playing out in front of him with intense interest.
No one as magical as she was should’ve tolerated being treated so.
He watched the red-haired woman’s spine straighten as she took a verbal jab at offense. He could tell by the way she held herself that she was pissed but she wasn’t doing anything with it. He neither felt her energies swirl nor increase like they might if she were going to strike a magical blow.
She didn’t use her magic to shield herself from their hassle, either.
Someone that radiated the kind of power she did shouldn’t have to work here, much less put up with bullshit.
So what was going on? He circled an idle finger along the rim of his wineglass as the scene played out and the woman turned, ducking down beneath the stand to grab a stack of menus. Her scarf fell forward and a red stone on a necklace swung out behind it.
His finger stopped and he curled his hand into a fist rather than smash the glass on the table.
It couldn’t be.
The red gemstone on her necklace…it was a third of the key to the Gate Below.
One of a set of gems created when he’d shattered the original key in its lock.
One was lost in the lock itself, he guarded one, and the other had been buried with his brother’s wife, eight hundred years ago.
And now some human girl was just…wearing it. Out and about. Without any shielding, and apparently without any knowledge of what it was or why it existed.
Here, of all places.
It was on a human!
Rax stayed seated, thinking hard, as she took half the group downstairs, followed by a flock of women, and he knew as she disappeared around the corner that he shouldn’t let her out of his sight. The necklace she was wearing was more valuable to him than the combined total of anything that’d ever been kept inside the decommissioned bank vault below.
He stared at the doorway she’d gone through as memories he thought he’d pushed down forever—as far away from him as his dragon now was—wracked through him like waves hitting rocks in a storm.
Summers spent going on adventures with his older brother, Tarian, sailing across the sea in grand loops under blue sky and golden sun. Stopping only to dive down to pull up ornate shells off the seafloor to gift their mother, laughing as they speared fish to eat raw over the side of the boat, both of them slicked with shiny scales until they swam again and knocked them free. Knowing that they were safe because they were both dragons, and that everyone else who sailed their Realm was safe because the Gate was locked.
If he could’ve ever traveled to any point in time, it would’ve been back to that impossibly perfect summer. Back when everything was simple and pure, and well before Tarian met Seris, the human girl that would go on to become his brother’s mate and his family’s downfall.
The woman reemerged—jogging, almost—at the top of the stairs, and he felt a visceral sense of relief at seeing her there. Her hand seemed to dive beneath her scarf without thinking, to grab hold of the stone for strength, and strong emotions flashed across her face. She was angry he could tell, and he read shame and embarrassment in the slope of her shoulders and the way she held her body, her blood pumping not just from the short run up the stairs but because she was seething. He shoved his memories away and returned to the present.
What had happened to piss her off so?
Who’d pushed this little human up to the edge and then over it?
How could he get back what was rightfully his?
She frowned and looked over, catching him staring, and he didn’t look away as she stormed up.
“I know that face,” he told her, rather than ask any of his questions.
Her light pink lips fell into a tiny pout. She had a smattering of freckles over her cheeks that she hadn’t bothered to try to hide with makeup. “You do, do you?”
And she had the slightest hint of an accent. He’d noticed it all night. He nodded at her. “Yes. That’s the kind of face an employee makes before she quits or does something to get fired.”
She huffed, perhaps embarrassed to be so readable.
“I’m not wrong, am I?” he pressed.
She shook her head before she answered, “No.”
The red stone peeked out from beneath her scarf, calling to him, just a few shades darker than her hair. There was no way she knew what it was or what it was worth. It had to have come into her possession by accident—all the better to let him steal it from her.
It was as if fate had shoved her into his path—on this day of all days.
Rax pushed himself back from the table. He no longer trusted in fate but he completely trusted in himself. She’d been alone all night, and what was more, she seemed lonely. And he…he knew exactly who he was. All he had to do was get her by herself. He kept his eyes on hers while moving to stand. He was taller than she was by over half-a-foot and while his greater size frightened some women, he knew others welcomed it. Which was she? She didn’t step back. He had to stop himself from smiling. So close, already, yes. His dark brown eyes traveled her delicately boned face and watched her fathomless blue ones widen in curiosity, helpless and fearless in equal measure.
“Did you want to do something worth getting fired for?” he asked her in a suggestive tone.
She swallowed before her lips parted and asked, “Like…what?”
“Like meet me in the wine cellar in three minutes,” he told her in a low voice, full of promises. He heard her gasp softly as he dropped his napkin on the table, turning to go down the stairs she’d just come up.
Sammy watched him go. He didn’t turn around to see if she’d follow or even give her a second look. It was like he knew that she would at least consider his offer.
Because right after she’d gotten that huge party seated downstairs, Bastian had torn her a new one, yelling at her for not recognizing Donna Breeland or her daughters and their friends, all of whom they were now shoving into the vault below, fire codes be damned. The only reason she hadn’t quit at that moment was because he’d stormed away too fast, and the whole thing was bullshit. She didn’t really need-need this job right now, she had enough savings to coast a little, and even if her quitting would embarrass Damian, maybe, she knew Andi would totally understand.
She’d raced upstairs, ready to just go straight out the door and Bastian could mail her last check, two weeks’ notice be damned, and then she caught Mr. Janvier staring at her, again, with his hot eyes, like someone was holding a piece of amber up to a bright flame, with his fucking perfectly fitted suit that showed off his wide shoulders, and his stupid handsome-like-an-ancient-statue face—she’d been pissed and had stomped over to see what the hell it was he wanted…only to find out that he wanted her.
Did it matter?
She stared at the path Mr. Janvier had taken. He’d already been downstairs for a minute, which gave her two minutes left to decide. She hugged herself, then saw Jeanine coming her way. She grabbed her blazer from the stand and went for the front door at a jog, flagging Ernesto down outside.