My insides thud with the closure of the door behind me, sealing my overwrought limbs and scattered brain off in a mesh of modern and vintage framework. Panting breaks up the pin-drop silence encased within veined walls of marble, my hands quivering on top of the extended sink counter as I stare into a continuous stretch of furnished mirror. The woman looking back blinks rapidly, in tandem with my erratic heartbeat, trying to take deep, tempered breaths.


Just calm down, I tell her. It’ll be fine. It’ll be fine. It’ll be fine…


I chant it in my head again and again, hoping to persuade my psyche of words I don’t believe.


Why didn’t I just drink the damn champagne?!


I continue to regard my reflection, my chest heaving, the involuntary action enhancing the rise and fall of my breasts, their outline straining against shimmering beads and lace.


I have no idea how long I stay like this, but when a knock sounds from the other side of the door followed by the waitress’ voice, I figure my time’s already up.


Damn it.


“Is everything all right, ma’am?”


“Y-Yes,” I stutter, getting pulled away from my thoughts—and the fleeting sense of calm I almost convinced myself I procured.


Quickly. I wash my hands just for the hell of it, hoping the action, though trivial, will play its part in soothing the nerves beneath them—and buy a few more seconds for my self-appointed “bio break”.


Reluctantly, I exit the restroom and snail my way back to the table, relieved to find at least one silver lining to my unwilling return. A pair of stemmed glasses sit at the center, filled three quarters of the way to the brim with a creamy bisque reminiscent of Irish cream, their rims embellished with flagrant edibles.


Soup in champagne flutes.


Another first.


A ring of saucers surrounds them, each housing different entrées, circling the paired display on a lazy Susan that appears to be built into the table. I take my seat again, keeping my peepers on the small, delicately-curved plates, unable—and unwilling—to set them anywhere near the life-sized delectable sitting across from me. Frankly, I think that’s the only way I’ll be able to get through tonight.


But the effort is forged in futility.


“Were you able to calm your nerves?” I hear Zane say suddenly.


My eyes shoot up to his against my will, going wide at the question.


Damn. Is it that obvious?


His expression is neutral, his tone un-telling. Clinical. But his feral eyes stab mine like they possess x-ray vision. And I’m beginning to think they really might because he just read me like the flute of soup he’ll soon empty.


I’ve been trying so desperately—my absolute best—to keep it together. I’d hoped I was at least doing a half-way decent job, but clearly not.


My lips part impulsively, but words escape me. No. That’s not exactly true. There’s nothing to say.


My proprietor’s expression softens somewhat at my tongue-tied constitution, the tiniest trace of a smirk playing up his gorgeous lips as he continues to examine me.


“There’s no reason to be. I already told you I won’t bite.”


And, yet, that reassurance does little in way of convincing me of its sincerity.


He grazes the stem of his wine glass with an index finger, the action slow. Measured. Seductive. He picks it up, raising it to eye level.


“To the Sweet Heart foundation.”


I blink back unresolved confoundment, swallowing as I reach for my glass of water. After a smidgen of a pause, I bring it against his in a timid tap.


“To the Sweet Heart foundation,” I concur, managing to extract my voice even though it’s strewn with rocks.


The resulting clink of glass on glass ripples against the backdrop of slow, mellow music, snipping into the night.


I take a generous swig of my water—too generous, perhaps—knocking it back impetuously in a fit of nerves. A billion bubbles sear my throat all at once, refusing to go down without a fight. My body rebels instantly, fending off the unseen attack. Against my will, I choke around infused liquid and gas, coughing ungracefully as fizzy water goes down the wrong pipe. Mortified, I reach for a napkin through the chaos, barking and gasping almost violently into it when my attempts to subdue the severity of my gag only makes it worse. My chest quakes with each forceful expulsion, my eyeballs quickly forming water of their own.


I clear my throat for the umpteenth time, embarrassed beyond words when my organs eventually agree to calm down, sucking in a deep, greedy breath.


Zane’s voice rolls through the awkwardness like silk. “Are you all right?”


I nod, whispering, “Yes.”


“Perhaps I should have made a better toast,” he quips.


A simper frees itself on my face before I can restrain it, still holding the napkin close to my lips.


He offers a subtle yet visible smirk in return, just in time for Lucien to appear with the main course.


The Valentine’s Day ‘Special’ is nothing short of the word. My eyes remain glued to the exquisite platter for several moments, taking in the ocular magnificence of the presentation.


A feast of red.


The first splendorous stripe of an edible rainbow.


An alternating, portioned assortment of rare, fillet mignon, wild salmon, pink shrimp and purple octopus festooned with strategically-placed cherry tomatoes, pomegranate seeds, sliced beets and radishes, blood oranges, red grapes and red bell peppers with accompanying sides of shredded red cabbage, red onion rings, and roasted, red potatoes.


In spite of my distaste for meat, the display is admittedly outstanding.


Our respective dishes are skillfully laid out before us, and the maître d’ departs with an enthusiastic “Bon appétit!”


Zane gestures to the table, but his gaze remains hinged to mine. “Shall we eat?”


I nod, reaching for one of several forks perfectly laid out in descending height to my left, wanting nothing more than an excuse not to speak. And I’ve been offered just that.


I start on my dish, impaling polished, silver spokes into a large, stuffed pasta shell. I take a tentative bite, and the second my teeth sink through, a surge of flavor almost knocks me out. I barely manage to suppress a moan around the infusion of spicy eggplant and aromatic brown rice, looking down at my plate of food in shock, my eyes widening at how unbelievably—and unexpectedly—savory it is.


Vegan? Check.


Organic? Check.


Gluten-free? Check.


Finger-fucking-licking? Check, check, check!


My eyes flutter with a complimentary exhale in spite of myself. I’ve genuinely never tasted anything this good, even with its relative lack of visual flare next to Zane’s blood banquet.


I take another bite, bigger this time. And another, and another, until I realize I’m practically stuffing my face, a shell in my own right. When I catch myself, I also realize that Zane is still watching me.


I rip my eyes away from his at the speed of light, supremely flustered all over again.


Great, I cringe. First, I can’t drink some damn water without sputtering and slobbering all over myself and now I’m padding my mandibles as if I’ve never seen food in my life.


Acute self-consciousness blankets me from head to pinky toe. I pause on autopilot, inhaling through a shudder before I resume, chewing slowly despite the nagging penchant to scarf my dinner down and lick my plate clean.


“No need for pointless decorum,” Zane encourages, noting my internal struggle, his inflection and countenance far from judgmental. “You can have as much as you like. Without reservation.”


Lucien promptly appears again at his silent beckoning.


“This is more than enough, thank you,” I decline, polite but adamant, my cheeks growing hotter.


It’s bad enough he’s paying for the date when he made the donation. Granted, he was resolute about that decision—along with all the logistics surrounding it—including picking the location. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling like a giant, gross leech, disconcertingly uncomfortable with the obscene amount of money he’s already spent on my behalf in just a single day. Money I haven’t earned in any way. However, the shameless glutton lodged inside my belly squeals in absolute glee when his insistence supersedes my refusal, ordering more food for us both.


“Of course,” the maître d’ nods, eagerly setting himself to task.


In spite of my protests, Zane ensures an encore of the main course and, while I’m reluctant to simply roll with it, I don’t really have much of a choice. I do, however, have plenty of embarrassment to go around, rattled by how blatantly engrossed I was in a plate of pasta that he could tell I craved more of it before I even finished.


I continue my facade of measured nibbles despite his enlightened stance on nutritional bashfulness. But not even the nectarous morsels can detract from the roaring in my chest.


Can deafen the unnerving pulse in the air.


Can diffuse the aura of wolf eyes on me.



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