Chapter 1 – Untamed

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My scalp itched with the remnants of drying blood when I arrived at The Den, ten minutes late for my shift. I crushed the impulse to rake my fingernails through my hair and entered the bar through the front door. The murmur and bustle of people greeted me, along with Irish Folk Music out of the stereo system. The low, warm lighting gave the bar a secretive charm. It was perfect for necking in dark corners, of which there were several.

The Den was packed, which wasn’t surprising. Saturday nights earned the bar as much money as all other nights of the week combined.

Blair hurried past me, carrying a tray full of beers.

“Lauren, thank God you’re here,” she said. A sheen of sweat glistened on her face, and strands of short blond hair stuck to her temples, despite the AC on full-blast to keep out the LA summer heat. “Cole’s been helping out, but his buddies just arrived.” She nodded her chin toward the Cozy Corner, a round booth tucked away behind the bar.

I guessed who she meant by the way her nose scrunched up in distaste. “Snooty and Snotty?”

She nodded. “‘Fraid so.”

“I can handle them,” I offered. Blair didn’t like serving Cole’s intimidating friends. There was something sinister about them besides their stuck-up attitudes, but that was the reason I liked serving them. I never ran from a challenge.

Blair looked relieved. “That would be great, thanks. Joanie’s mixing their drinks.”

“I’m on it.” I headed past the bar and through a door to the break room, where I stashed my purse in a locker. I was already wearing the green polo shirt with the Den’s logo on the back. All I had to add was a waist apron I pulled out of a drawer.

I checked my appearance in the small mirror above the sink one last time before heading back outside. My hair looked greasy, as if it hadn’t been washed in a couple of days, but at least it was dark enough to hide whatever red flecks might still be caught in it. I’d brushed out the blood as well as possible, but I didn’t feel clean. There was nothing I could do about my crawling scalp. I’d just have to ignore that until I got home.

Once I was a hundred percent sure I was presentable, I hurried back outside to where Joanie waited with a tray full of drinks. She handed it to me and waved her hands over the drinks as she pointed them out.

“You’re on section B tonight. These three are for table four, these two for table eight, and these are for Cole and his Merry Men.” She topped the last two words with a hearty dollop of sarcasm. None of us had ever seen Snooty or Snotty laugh.

I looked at the glass she’d pointed out as Cole’s. “You sure you got this one right?”

She gave me The Look. “I never mix up my drinks. Trust me, he ordered that.”

“He must be really stressed.” I turned to section B. It was on the opposite side of the room from the Cozy Corner, which meant I’d be running a few extra miles tonight. The tips had better make up for this.

Cole was aware that his ‘friends’ weren’t our favorite customers. I could have sworn they weren’t his, either, though he’d never admit it. Whatever Cole’s ties to them were, they didn’t hesitate to send back a drink that wasn’t to their liking, even when he’d prepared it for them. Of course they had to come tonight and add to the burden of an undermanned staff. No wonder Cole had sounded stressed when he’d called and asked if I could take over for Tansy on short-notice.

I served the drinks at tables four and eight, then headed to the Cozy Corner, weaving between tables and customers without spilling a single drop. As a waitress who valued her tips, you quickly learned to navigate the hustle and bustle of a crowded establishment.

Cole smiled as I approached. As always, I couldn’t help but grin back. No matter how dark my mood, one lop-sided smile from Cole Tanner cheered me right up. It was a shame he had this stupid policy about dating his employees. Or rather, not dating them. But at least he wasn’t opposed to a little harmless flirting.

I set the first drink down on a coaster in front of Snooty.

“A Black Widow, your usual, Sir,” I said. Long, slender fingers curled around the stem of the glass as he pulled it closer. Everything about Snooty was long and slender; his limbs, torso and even his face, an effect amplified by the long black hair that framed it. He looked like he’d been stretched out on a torture rack.

Snotty, while also tall, was anything but slender. His tailored suits probably used to hide the slight paunch that had turned into a full-blown beer belly. These days, they only seemed to highlight it.

“Your Martini, Sir,” I said, lowering his drink. His beefy, silver-ringed fingers snatched the glass from me. Dark brown eyes scrutinized me as if I were a bug on his windshield, and just as easy to crush. It was that look which intimidated the other waitresses and made us speculate wildly about who these men really were. Cole pretended they were old friends from college, when clearly they discussed more serious matters than the good old days. I couldn’t even imagine these two going to college, let alone getting their groove on.

The other waitresses agreed on that front, but opinions diverged from there. Tansy dismissed them as snobs. Blair figured they were mobsters. Joanie thought they acted like paranoid psychos. I didn’t believe either of those mundane explanations and imagined they were something different altogether.

I grabbed the last drink off the tray, a snifter of cognac, and narrowed my eyes at Cole as I put it down in front of him. “A beer wouldn’t cut it today, huh?”

I’d only been working here for three weeks, but I’d never seen him drink anything stronger than a lager.

He smiled half-heartedly and lifted his glass in a gesture of cheers. “Just one of those days.”

I leaned towards him with a secretive wink. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you tonight.”

His smooth amber eyes sparked with amusement, always the precursor to a truer smile – and then he froze. His nostrils distended, the pupils widened and his gaze rooted me to the spot. Something vicious and untamed stared at me out of Cole’s handsome face, like a demon’s eyes through two holes in a pretty portrait.

I stopped breathing. “What?” I whispered.

Beside him, Snooty and Snotty tensed, as if taking their cue from Cole. Snooty dropped a hand beneath the table to his hip, as if he were reaching for a weapon. Things were about to go nuclear.

Cole noticed his buddy’s movement, too. His eyes flicked in his direction, then back to me. In the next instant he blinked, and the animalistic light was gone. He smiled, but his eyes remained flat. “Nothing. You just look very pretty tonight.”

It was definitely not nothing. Cole may not discourage my flirting with him, but he never reciprocated, at least not to the extent of complimenting my looks. And he was obviously lying about those; I probably looked the worst he’d ever seen me. I wasn’t even wearing make-up, for Pete’s sake.

“Enjoy your drinks, gents,” I said and spun on my heels, heading back to the bar where Cole wouldn’t see me. I picked up a couple of orders and relayed them to Joanie on the way to the restroom in the back.

I was alone in there, and thankful for it. My hands were shaking. I stood in front of the sink and let cold water run over my wrists. I took my time before meeting my eyes in the mirror in front of me; nobody likes to see themselves scared.

I’d had no idea my new boss was something other than human.

He’s not a bloodsucker, I assured myself over and over. I knew vampires; I hunted them in my pastime. It wasn’t a hobby, exactly, but definitely something I enjoyed. It stilled my thirst for revenge rather well.

That inhuman light in Cole’s eyes hadn’t been the vampiric fever of bloodlust. I’d seen that up close often enough to be able to tell the difference. I had no idea what Cole might be; aside from vampires, my knowledge of the supernatural was non-existent. They kept their secrets close to their vests. Maybe that was why Cole had reacted the way he did when he smelled the vampire blood on me. It was the only reason I could come up with to account for his strong response to me leaning close.

But he’d let it go, at least for now, in front of his friends and the entire bar. Hopefully, he’d let it go altogether. We were friends, after all. At least I’d thought we were friends.

He’s not a bloodsucker, I reminded myself again. Everything else doesn’t matter.

Everything else would sort itself out.

 


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