“Hurry up, ladies!” a voice yelled at them from behind the door.
“Showtime,” Mia said, adjusting Talia’s tight black dress.
Mia turned to straighten her own dress, and Talia inspected her reflection in the mirror. Her long, heavy black hair framed her pale face, and her blue-green eyes sparkled like jewels.
Her dark red lips curved in a smile when Mia met her gaze in the mirror and winked.
Tonight was a special event at the Empress Hotel, and Mia had persuaded Talia to work the event as a waitress. The ballroom was crawling with powerful men.
“Trust me,” Mia had urged. “The tips are amazing. These guys are all basically billionaires.”
Each table was assigned to one dedicated waiter. When you were that rich, you didn’t have to share the waitstaff.
“Who did you get?” Mia asked.
Talia looked down at her piece of paper.
They peeked into the ballroom through the small kitchen window.
Mia spotted her host and groaned. “I knew it. I have some old guy.”
Talia scanned the tables, expecting her fate to be similar.
She caught her breath.
At the head of her table was one of the most striking men she had ever seen. He was surrounded by other people but paying attention to none of them.
“Ready?” the event planner shouted from behind them.
The waiters were each handed two bottles of wine, a red and a white, on their way to the dining room. Nervously, Talia realized that just one of those bottles probably cost more than her rent.
No one at the table seemed to notice her as she filled their glasses, even as they indicated their wine preference to her.
She made it most of the way around the table without incident, but as she made her way toward the head of the table, she looked up to see Axel staring at her darkly.
Instantly, the hairs on the back of her neck raised, and she jerked, spilling wine onto the woman sitting next to him.
The woman yelped and looked up at Talia. “You idiot!”
“Just dab it off, Sophie,” Axel instructed her. His voice was deep and authoritative. To Talia he said, “Leave that on the table,” and pointed at the half-full bottles of wine.
Sophie rolled her eyes and stormed off toward the bathroom. Talia put the wine where he told her and used a rag to wipe up her spill as quickly as she could.
Her cheeks were burning, and she was frantic to get out from under Axel’s gaze.
She stood and turned to leave, but a voice boomed behind her.
“Where the fuck do you think you’re going?”
He gripped her wrist.
“I…need to go…check on the appetizers,” Talia stuttered.
He growled into her ear, “Did I dismiss you?”
Talia's heart pounded as she tried to understand what was happening. Finally, she whispered, “No, sir.”
He let her go.
The rest of the dinner service ran smoothly. Sophie returned to the table, and Talia served them each course in careful silence.
They seemed happy to pretend she wasn’t there, but now and then her eyes would dart to Axel, and his brooding stare would be fixed on her. Once, she caught Sophie glaring at her.
When Talia placed an espresso in front of Axel after dinner, he caught her arm before she could pull away.
“Wait a minute,” Axel said coolly. “What is your name?”
“My name?” Talia asked hesitantly.
“I’m sorry,” he snapped. “Who else did you think I was talking to? This hotel might be old, but I doubt it’s haunted.”
“My name is Talia,” she stuttered.
“Have some wine with us,” he insisted, already pouring Talia a glass.
“To tonight.” He raised his glass. “May we all remember it fondly.”
There was something ominous about his tone, but Talia couldn’t quite figure out why.
His eyes glimmered darkly as he took a sip from his glass, and she could have sworn he looked right at her as he did it.
Talia gathered her things in the staff room. She couldn’t wait to be back home, curled up in bed watching TV.
Someone cleared their throat behind her.
Axel blocked the doorway, casting a dark shadow into the room. “Going home?”
“Yes actually. My shift is over.” Talia tried to push past him.
“When did I say you could leave?”
What is wrong with this psycho?
He raised his hand and gently wrapped it around her throat. He began to squeeze. “When I speak to you, you answer. Do I make myself clear?”
He pressed against her, crushing her against the wall as his hand tightened on her throat. She stared at the tattoos peeking out from underneath the collar of his shirt, unable to look away.
“Yes…sir,” she stammered.
“Good girl.” He dropped his arms and moved aside. “You may go.”
She walked away quickly, but before she could exit the door, he uttered one final sentence:
“I will be watching you.”
At her car, shuffling through her pockets and looking for her car keys, Talia felt a thin envelope tucked into her jacket pocket.
She didn’t remember putting it there.
The envelope was addressed to her, sealed with wax the color of blood.
Talia snapped it open.
Just one line was scrawled in black ink.
1920 Roseshade Road —Axel
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