Holly Taylor crossed her arms over her chest, looking around at the immaculate kitchen setup. She brushed an imaginary piece of lint from her chef’s whites and then glanced at the dry storage shelves.
“There’s dust all over the canisters,” she said, stopping one of the staff as he walked by. “Take care of it.”
“Yes, Chef,” the young man said with an audible gulp, his Adam’s apple bobbing. He scampered away, only to return a few seconds later with a clean rag.
Holly nodded with satisfaction as the young man began to clean each canister, then turned to the rest of the kitchen. Petite Louve was going to have its soft opening in two days, and everything had to be perfect. As head chef, it was her job to make sure everything went off without a hitch. This was her big chance. Possibly her only chance after blowing her last one.
On the outside, she was calm and collected, despite the fact that this was the first kitchen she would be running on her own and she was nervous as hell.
The Ice Queen.
That was the nickname her classmates at École de Cuisine Alain Chevalier in Paris called her. Nothing fazed her, and she didn’t even flinch when the temperamental chef screamed at her when she made the mistake of not cutting the lemons into even pieces for his famous tarte au citron. She liked to think that was one of the things she did to earn his respect, at least enough for him to offer her a job as a commis or junior chef at his Los Angeles restaurant as soon as she graduated.
For five years she worked there and made her way up to line cook, pastry chef, and then sous chef, the youngest in any of Chevalier’s kitchens. Alain himself had offered her the job as head chef for his new Las Vegas restaurant. Of course, he’d also been furious when she turned him down, telling her that she would never work in a kitchen again unless she accepted his offer and started work immediately. But what could she do? She had to go back to Seattle. Family came first.
“There you are,” Sharice Wilson, the owner of Petite Louve, said as she sauntered into the kitchen. “What are you doing here so early? It’s not even nine. We’re not having our staff meeting until three.”
Sharice was a former classmate from Paris. She was a terrible cook but a brilliant businesswoman, plus she came from money. Her family owned a gas station chain down in Atlanta. It had been Sharice’s dream to open her own restaurant in New York, which worked out for Holly. She’d been unemployed for a month, taking care of her family matter when she got the call. They had lost touch after Paris, but Sharice had tracked her down. When she found out Holly wasn’t working for Alain, Sharice offered her the job as head chef for her new restaurant. Holly didn’t even think twice before saying yes on the spot and packed up to go to New York.
“I had a little time,” she said. “I wanted to make sure everything was good for our soft opening.”
“You’re a workaholic, you know that?” Sharice shook her head, her natural curls bouncing around her face. Holly had always envied her gorgeous friend, with her pretty, exotic face; light hazel eyes; smooth tawny skin; and curvy body that drove all the Frenchmen wild during their days at the École. Not that she wanted the male attention, but Holly always thought of herself as quite plain, with straight blonde hair, blue eyes, and a petite frame.
“You need to relax,” Sharice said. “We’ve been preparing for two months. Nothing is going to go wrong.”
“Don’t jinx it,” she warned. This was a restaurant kitchen, everything could go wrong. She liked to keep things in order, and she prepared for every eventuality.
“Are you scaring the staff again?” Sharice asked, looking at the young man meticulously dusting the shelves.
“I’m not scaring them,” Holly replied. She knew her friend was joking, of course, but she did have the reputation. Cold. Pedantic. Difficult to please. And a host of other negative descriptors. If she were a man, they’d use other words like “perfectionist” and “professional.” It was unfair, but she didn’t care. For Holly, it was all about the food. Food demanded respect and care.
A loud crash from the dining room made both their heads turn. Holly was about to head out when Sharice put her hand up to stop her. “Nuh-uh. No,” she said in a firm voice. “This is your territory; front of house is mine.” It was true. Sharice, with her affable nature, was a people person. “You are not to step out of here unless a diner wants to compliment you. I still remember the last time.”
Holly winced inwardly. “That was the only time I did that.”
“Uh-huh.” Sharice raised a brow at her before disappearing into the other room.
She huffed out a breath. It was their last year at the École and all the students had to do three months in Alain’s Paris restaurant. When a finicky tourist had sent back his meal three times for not having enough seasoning, she dumped a cup of salt on the dish and then took it out herself, dropping it on the man’s table.
Alain had been furious with her and chewed her out in front of everyone. She nearly lost it, but kept herself together, cementing her reputation as a cold, hard bitch.
Later on, Alain had ordered her into his office. She thought she was done and he was going to send her packing, but it seemed he had been amused by her antics and wondered what it would take to break her. He said he had never seen talent like hers and offered her the position in LA. Of course, he threatened to ruin her career if she ever tried anything like that again. Since then, she never stepped foot in the dining room.
“Hello? Sorry, the door was open. I thought I’d let myself in.”
Holly whirled around at the sound of the low baritone. Standing in her kitchen was a stranger. A man. Her breath caught in her throat at the sight of him. Thick, dark hair; tall, broad shoulders; a white T-shirt that molded to his muscular chest and showed off his olive skin. But what made her stare was his face. The only way she could describe it was beautiful, like it had been sculpted by a master. The bit of designer scruff only added a hint of danger to his good looks. And those eyes. One a stark green color and the other a bright blue. Unusual, to say the least.
He frowned. “Chef? You okay?”
Holly cleared her throat and straightened her shoulders. “Yes. I mean, I’m fine.” She glanced at the crate of potatoes by his feet. Oh, he was probably one of their vegetable supplier’s delivery guys. “That really doesn’t belong there,” she said, nodding to the crate. “Move it to the pantry.”
A confused look crossed his face, then he shrugged and bent down, picking up the crate with ease. Her throat went dry as the thin T-shirt stretched across his chest and shoulders, the muscle contracting underneath. He placed the crate on one shoulder like it weighed nothing.
“Where’d you want this again?”
She nodded to the door in the corner. “Over there.” He flashed her a smile, turned around, then walked in the direction of the pantry. Dear Lord. The way those T-shirt and jeans molded to his body should be illegal. Where was his coat? It was December and he was dressed like it was July.
“Hello? Earth to Holly?” Sharice’s voice interrupted her thoughts.
She spun around, hand on her chest. “Hey, everything okay out there?”
“Yeah, just a waiter with butterfingers.” Sharice let out a sigh. “Now what?”
“Hey, lady, where’d my potatoes go?” A short, heavy man with a thick Brooklyn accent was standing by the door, scratching his head.
“Yeah,” the man said. “I left them by the door. I was gonna get the eggplants.”
“Your guy put them in the back.”
“My guy?” The man took off his cap and rubbed his hand down his face. “Lady, I don’t got no guy. I work by myself.”
“What?” Holly bellowed. “Then who did I send to the pantry?”
At that same moment, the hunky man came into the room, wiping his hands on his jeans.
“You!” Holly hissed, striding over to him and pointing an accusing finger at his chest. “Who the hell are you?”
“Excuse me?” he asked.
“Oh. My. God.” Sharice exclaimed, her voice pitching higher with each word. She hopped over to them like an excited rabbit. “You’re that guy … I mean … I know you!”
“Who is this man?” Holly asked, turning to her friend.
“Holly, this is Dante Muccino. I mean, Chef Dante Muccino.”
Another chef invading her kitchen? Irritation began to build in her. “What are you doing here? Are you spying on us?”
Dante threw his head back and laughed. The sound sent tingles across her skin, but Holly ignored it. She crossed her arms over her chest and huffed out a breath.
“A spy? Seriously?” he said. He crossed the room, walking to the table by the door. There was a white and red box there that Holly hadn’t noticed. Dante picked it up and pushed it at her. “Here. I made these this morning. As a welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift. Cannolis. My grandmother’s recipe.”
Holly was about to open her mouth when Sharice quickly grabbed the box and nudged her in the ribs. “Thank you for the warm welcome, Chef Dante,” she said, giving Holly a warning look. “We look forward to being here.”
Suddenly it clicked into place. That last name. Muccino’s. “You own the restaurant across the street.”
He nodded, and his mismatched eyes sparkled. “I do. And I run the kitchen, too.”
“Pardon me for my rudeness,” Sharice interjected. “I’m Sharice Wilson, owner of Petite Louve. And this is my head chef, Holly Taylor.”
“Nice to meet you,” Dante said, extending his hand.
When Holly gave him a raised brow and refused to take his hand, Sharice immediately grabbed it and shook it.
“Nice to meet you, too,” she said quickly. “Holly, er … has a thing with germs.”
Holly’s irritation was slowly turning to anger. She didn’t want to shake hands with this … invader. How could he disrespect her kitchen by just barging in unannounced? What kind of chef was he anyway? Did he think just because he was hot, she was going to trip over herself trying to be nice to him?
“Oh, sorry, that crate wasn’t very clean,” Dante said, wiping his hands on his pants. But his apology sounded hollow to her ears.
“Nice to meet you,” she replied in her frostiest tone. “I have things to do.” She whipped around and walked to her office, trying to block out the sound of Sharice’s fawning and kowtowing.
Who the hell was this Dante Muccino anyway, she fumed silently as she marched into her office and slammed the door behind her. Was he some sort of celebrity chef around here? Why was Sharice fawning all over him? And why did he pretend to be one of their suppliers? Was he spying on them?
She sank into the chair behind the desk and spun around to face the wall. When she closed her eyes, all she could see was Dante’s handsome, tanned face grinning at her. And those eyes staring back at her with heat and interest. Were those even real? Was he real? Surely no man could be that hot. This was crazy. She was The Ice Queen. Nothing made her flinch or melt. But something about Dante Muccino sent her into a tizzy.
Holly cringed, realizing how rude she’d acted. She should have shaken his hand, but something about him unnerved her—like touching his hand would somehow make her melt even more—so she resisted, no matter how much she wanted to feel his warm skin on hers.
She let out a sigh and rubbed her temple with her fingers. Maybe she should go across the street and apologize for acting like a brat. He had brought gifts too, something he made himself.
“Chef?” Her sous chef Pierre poked his head into her office.
“What?” she asked.
“You asked me to come in before lunch to finalize a few things.”
“Oh, right. Come in.” Holly pushed all thoughts of Dante Muccino aside. There would be time enough for that. Right now, she had a restaurant to open and a kitchen to whip into shape.
Dante waved goodbye to Sharice, took one last glance at Petite Louve, then crossed the street to head back to Muccino’s. He shoved his hands into his pockets and hunched over, pretending to keep himself warm. As a Lycan, his body was able to adjust to the temperature easily. Wolf shifters didn’t really need a coat, even during the winter, but they all wore one to blend in.
Today, though, he had simply forgotten to put one on before he crossed the street. He came in early today to make some cannolis for tonight’s dessert menu. He had a couple of extras and was planning to send them up to his brother-in-law’s sister, Alynna. However, when he saw the lights in the restaurant across the street were on, he changed his mind and decided to give the treats to them instead. And, if he was honest, he was curious about the competition.
He hadn’t decided yet if it had been a good idea or not. The kitchen was impressive, that was for sure. Everything was shiny, new, and top of the line. Whoever invested in it was either rich or stupid. Or both. However, Sharice Wilson didn’t seem like a fool, so she must be loaded.
And then there was Holly Taylor. Chef Holly Taylor, he corrected himself.
Dante wasn’t sure what to make of the other chef. For one thing, she seemed too young to have her own kitchen at maybe four or five years younger than himself. Of course, he’d been running his own kitchen for over five years now, so he knew age didn’t determine talent.
But there was something about her … He couldn’t put his finger on it. Even his wolf perked up when he saw her, which was a first. It had never done that before, not for any human or Lycan woman. Why did it start now?
She was cute, if a little (okay, a lot) frosty. Pert nose; light blue eyes; full, pink lips. The chef’s whites she wore was cinched at the waist, hinting at her curves and the womanly shape underneath. Her blond hair was swept up into that twisty bun he’d seen some women wear. He wondered how long it was and how it would feel between his fingers. He imagined himself running his hand through her blond locks, releasing them and letting them fall past her shoulders …
Get your head on straight, Muccino, he told himself. And stop thinking with your other head. Holly Taylor was not interested. In fact, she was the opposite of interested. The way she turned down her nose at him, kept her distance, and refused to shake his hand made him bristle with annoyance.
He knew her type. She was the type of woman who would never even have looked at him when he was a nobody from Jersey. Likely grew up on the Upper East Side. Probably studied in some fancy European school. The kitchen screamed classical French cooking the way it was set up. Clean, airy, everything in its place, the food never crossing with the unclean items. It was vastly different from his own kitchen, which was messy, cluttered, well-used, and well-loved. He bet Holly Taylor inspected every piece of carrot and every sliver of garlic to make sure they were the right thickness before they went into her immaculately prepared dishes. He shrugged. It was none of his business what she did in her kitchen.
And so he spent the rest of the morning preparing for the lunch shift, which went by pretty fast. They usually got busy people conducting business over a quick meal or ladies who lunched, and, by two thirty, the dining room was nearly empty.
Afternoons were always slow, which meant he had time to make the staff meal and then get ready for the dinner shift. Most head chefs left the day-to-day operations to the staff, but he was very hands-on. He didn’t get tired easily, thanks to his shifter side, so he had energy to spare even when he worked sixteen-hour days.
Today, though, most of that extra energy was spent trying to not think about Holly Taylor, a battle he thought he was winning. But she remained at the back of his mind, not unlike an irritating pebble in his shoe or an itch he couldn’t reach.
The dinner shift was unusually busy, and the kitchen staff was running around in their typical controlled chaos. But, then again, with the Christmas holidays and the days getting shorter, fewer people wanted to cook dinner at home. The Muccino’s dining room had been decorated to the nines with wreaths, lights, centerpieces, and several large Christmas trees. Frankie had grown to love Christmas over the past few years (probably because her children adored the holiday), so she went all out with the decorating.
“Dante,” Enzo called as he entered the kitchen. “Special request. A couple of our regular hedge fund guys from Carter and McBeal are wining and dining some important clients. Said they’d appreciate it if you showed them some love.”
Dante let out a sigh. He knew the drill. Guys like these were VIPs, with their seemingly bottomless expense accounts. He knew this group dropped a couple thousand on booze alone in a night and all they wanted was to show off to their clients, who had even deeper pockets. It was part of the job, of course, but not his favorite one. He asked Andres to take over and strode out to the dining room.
“Chef Dante!” one of hedge fund guys called to him. Dante noticed he was wearing a suit that cost more that a year’s wages for his busboys.
“Bill,” he greeted back. Thank God Enzo had whispered his name on the way here. “Nice of you to come back again.”
“Of course! Best Osso Bucco in the city!” Bill said, his portly, red face brightening and thin lips curling up into a grin. “Now, let me introduce you to some people …”
Dante shook hands with Bill’s bigwig clients, nodding and making small talk, taking their compliments with grace. He made a big show of his “friendship” with Bill, asking him about the kids and the wife (thank you, again, Enzo) and joking with them that he’d have to kill them if he told them his secret tomato sauce recipe.
“So, Chef,” Bill began. “I see the restaurant across the street’s re-opening. I heard from my real estate guy it’s gonna be some fancy shmancy French place. Is that true?”
“Yeah, and are you scared of the competition?” someone joked.
Dante gritted his teeth. “Me, scared? Nah.” He let out a distasteful snort. “And French cooking? Please. Talk about uptight, overpriced, and bland.”
“So you think they won’t last the year?” Bill asked.
“Won’t last the month,” he joked. He gave Bill a pat on the back. “Well, I got more diners to serve. It was good talking to you again, Bill. Say hi to Sandra and the kids for me, will ya?” With Bill happy, his clients awed, and their check continuing to grow as they motioned for a waiter to bring them more wine, Dante strode back to the kitchen, eager to get back to work.