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Yiorgos Michelopoulos strode into the steamy kitchen of his most recently acquired restaurant and everyone began disappearing. Wait staff scurried out the swinging doors, presumably to attend to Remy’s guests, but since the dining room was empty—and had been every night for months—they had no cause for haste.
Other than escape.
The sous-chef backed away, finding a hiding place in the large refrigerator. Yiorgos hoped the man froze to death.
The only employees brave enough to remain in his presence were Paul, the acclaimed executive chef he’d sent here two weeks ago to turn things around, and Dmitri, the manager of the restaurant and one of his closest friends. Dmitri had left his prestigious job at a premiere New York hotel and moved his wife and kids to Missouri in order to help him.
Despite its remote location, Remy’s was proving to be the most formidable nightmare they’d ever faced.
Without saying a word to either of them, Yiorgos picked up a spoon and sampled the sauce bubbling on the grimy stove—which had been immaculate this morning when the staff had arrived. The rich béchamel curdled on his tongue like spoiled cream.
Furious, he threw the spoon into the stainless steel sink. “Disgusting.”
“I know.” Paul moaned, wringing his hands in his stained apron. “I don’t understand it, Mr. Michelopoulos. I cook my most treasured dishes and everything turns out bad, very bad. This whole place is cursed.”
Grimly, Yiorgos twisted the signet ring digging into the pinky finger on his right hand. The restaurant isn’t the only thing cursed.
If only he hadn’t put the ring on his finger. He’d forgotten the damned thing even existed after winning it from Emile Remy nearly two years ago, along with his restaurant he’d stubbornly refused to sell. Yiorgos had possessed everything he could possibly want, including the five-star status he and Remy had battled over for years. When his luxury hotel casino in Kansas City had won again last year, he’d put the ring on for spite, to celebrate his ultimate victory.
Which had triggered a curse the likes of which he’d never known possible.
“We have to shut it down.”
Dmitri’s words made him whirl around, his face twisted with a snarl. “I’ve never closed a restaurant in my entire life, let alone this…this…”
Frustrated, Yiorgos waved his hand at the small kitchen. On the surface, Remy’s wasn’t worth his time and effort. Even at full capacity, the dining room would barely seat one hundred guests. At the height of its success, the restaurant had been lucky to pull in a few grand a night. A drop in the bucket to a man with enough money to buy every restaurant in this entire one-horse Midwestern town.
Yet for nearly a decade, Remy’s had claimed exclusive five-star status, despite Yiorgos’s efforts to wrest the prize for his own hotel’s restaurant. Only after he’d put on this accursed ring had Yiorgos learned the secret to Remy’s seemingly impossible success.
Yiorgos owned hundreds of hotels and restaurants across the globe, yet he couldn’t keep one lousy ma-and-pa diner open. Fury made him grate his teeth. Barely holding his curses in check, he stalked into the manager’s office.
Dmitri followed him and quietly shut the door. “How are you holding up?”
In the privacy of the small office, Yiorgos allowed his shoulders to slump. Weary of hiding and worrying and plotting to save his life and this pitiful restaurant, he ran a hand through his hair. “Nothing’s fallen off yet, if that’s what you mean.”
His friend winced, which made a small twinge of regret tighten his chest.
“It’s that bad?” Dmitri asked in a choked voice.
Without turning completely around, Yiorgos slipped the signet ring off his pinky. He looked back over his shoulder, allowing Dmitri to see the decay eating away his face. It might only be an illusion, a spell the late Emile Remy had managed to throw upon him before the man lost everything, but without the ring, he would soon look like a walking corpse. “Zombie or mummy?”
“Zombie,” Dmitri answered automatically, well used to his word games. “Dear God. What are you going to do?”
Slipping the ring back on, Yiorgos allowed a small smile to curve his lips, but neither his face nor his resolved softened. “The Wizard Council claims only someone of Remy’s blood can lift the curse. Since he’s dead, the only person left of use to me is his daughter.”
“Wizard Council.” Dmitri let out an uneasy laugh. “I never knew such a thing existed. If you hadn’t shown me what happens when you take the ring off, then I never would have believed you. Do you think Remy’s daughter can help you?”
“She will.” Yiorgos promised in the silky menace voice he used for the hardest negotiations. “Regardless of what I must do to learn the witch’s secrets, she can and will help me.”
~ * ~
Stirring the simmering lentil soup, Clare Remy tried to ignore her mother’s constant harping. The familiar warm tingle in her fingertips promised her magic was working, despite whatever Selma had to say about her cooking.
“There’s still something missing.” Although that didn’t keep her from eating the whole bowl Clare had ladled out for her. “It’s not as good as what your father used to make.”
No. She smiled sadly down at the rich soup that had always been his favorite. It’s better.
He’d be busting at the seams with pride if he were still alive. Instead of cooking at home, she’d be sweating in Remy’s bustling kitchen, exhausted but elated by their customers’ glowing praise. Instead, her only customer was her mother who couldn’t ever be pleased.
“At this rate you’re never going to pass your trials next month,” Selma continued, her voice sharpening with every word. “You won’t be accepted into the Wizard Council’s teaching program. Whatever will we do then?”
Clare could only sigh. She understood the worry, because the daily stress of carrying the entire family’s success on her shoulders was getting to her, too. “We’ll get by like we’ve been doing the past two years.” She fought for an even tone of voice. “We’ll have jobs like normal people. The house is paid for. If I can’t cook for some reason, then I’ll…”
“We’re not normal people!” Selma tossed the bowl into the sink with a clatter. “We’re wizards, descended from generations of extremely powerful wizards. We can’t be reduced to menial labor!”
Clare preferred to think of herself as a witch, a kitchen witch to be exact. Wizardry sounded so…Arthurian. As though she ought to be slaying dragons and stirring up storm clouds instead of cooking supper in her modest kitchen.
She ladled out a bowl for herself and began slicing off a nice thick piece of homemade bread.
“Don’t cut yourself,” Selma said automatically, for the millionth time if Clare was counting.
She didn’t even try to explain yet again that it’d be impossible for a kitchen witch to cut herself with her own knife. It would be like burning a cake or bread dough that failed to rise. Her magic wouldn’t allow such cooking disasters. Too bad her magic didn’t cover general clumsiness and awkwardness too. Or how about fantastic hair and a killer sense of style? Maybe all those gorgeous runway models were witches too, wielding a type of magic she hadn’t heard of yet.
One sip of her soup smoothed away all those silly thoughts. She’d take plumpness, clumsiness, and a supreme lack of fashion in order to cook like this.
“If only we had your father’s ring. Then we wouldn’t have to trust you to stay a virgin.”
Clare winced. Oh, boy, had she heard this lecture a thousand times. Never mind that she was far from a teenager anymore in need of sex education. Since her cousin had lost her virginity—and her magic—just last month, her mother’s lectures had redoubled.
Her mother’s healing talent had disappeared as soon as she married. Since Selma wasn’t the head of her family, she had no magic left at all, and now her husband was gone too. The loss of her special ability had always stung.
Wizards didn’t often marry each other for that very reason. Someone always had to give up their power, unless they were both heads of their own families. With families dwindling day by day… Naturally, she worried that her daughter would suffer the same magic-less fate.
Although as a twenty-seven-year-old virgin, Clare already felt like a dried up—extremely lonely—crone.
A tinkling sound announced a magical visitor requesting entry to the Remy home.
“Come in.” At Clare’s invitation, her mentor, Helga Kettlewich, popped into the kitchen.
Where Clare thought of herself as curvaceous, the other witch’s full-figured shape loudly and proudly proclaimed her love of fine dining. Although Clare often bemoaned her apparently frumpy taste in clothing, she could only be thankful that at least she wasn’t completely colorblind like her teacher.
A blazing orange shirt, green polka dot—extremely short for her matronly figure—skirt and blood-red tights completed Helga’s ensemble. With springy gray curls popping up all over her head, she looked like a kooky Halloween-costumed witch, not the supreme head of the North American Wizard Council and quite possibly the most powerful witch in the world both in and out of the kitchen.
Clare immediately leapt to her feet, but Helga waved her back to her chair.
“I’m sorry, dear. I didn’t mean to interrupt your lunch. May I have a taste?”
“But of course,” Selma gushed, running about the kitchen to fetch a bowl for their guest as though she had prepared the food herself.
Biting her lip, Clare didn’t say anything and instead, sat down to continue eating. Her mother had little interaction with the Wizard Council and would relish having a part, no matter how small, in the magical world. Even serving another witch’s brew.
Helga sat beside her and said in a low voice, “I have an important message for you.”
Slamming open cupboards looking for their best bowls, Selma didn’t hear or notice the paper Helga slipped to her.
Clare unfolded the thick parchment and a pit of hell yawned wide and terrifying beneath her feet.
The devil himself. The man who’d stolen her father’s restaurant and their family power in one fell swoop, leaving him to die of a broken, mundane heart.
Which makes my stupid fantasies about the man all the more unforgivable.
She dropped the letter onto the table as if a hot pan had scorched her bare fingers.
“It’s urgent,” Helga whispered. “Or I wouldn’t have interrupted your practice for the trials.”
Gingerly, Clare picked up the paper and scanned the words he’d slashed on the page in a bold, heavy hand. Each word ramped up the furious heat boiling inside her until she nearly screeched as shrilly as a boiling kettle. The audacity of the man! He actually expected, no, ordered, her to come to her own family restaurant that he’d stolen from her poor father. And work for him?
Forcing herself to remain calm, she folded the paper and slipped it into her apron pocket without replying. She picked up her spoon and tried to eat, but the lentil soup tasted like ashes.
“It’s an opportunity to regain the Remy ring.” Helga reminded her in a soft whisper. “I saw it on his hand when he came to my office.”
“The ring!” Selma dropped the delicate china bowl in front of Helga. Only the kitchen witch’s deft hand kept the bowl from dumping its contents in her lap. “What? You must tell me!”
“It’s nothing.” Clare pushed her soup away, her stomach in knots. Her head thundered, her blood pressure likely through the roof. Why would he contact her now? What could he possibly want with her?
He’s already taken everything from me that I care about.
“Mr. Michelopoulos requests Clare’s assistance at Remy’s.” Helga managed to make his summons sound much more polite than his actual note. “Evidently he’s worried that the restaurant won’t be able to retain its five-star competition when the inspector arrives.”
“Yes, yes, but the ring,” Selma insisted. “Does he still have it? Will he give it back?”
“He doesn’t promise anything in his note, I’m afraid, but I did see it.”
Selma sat down heavily in the chair opposite them, as though she had no strength remaining in her legs. “I never thought we’d have a chance to get it back. You have to go, Clare.”
“Mom, I can’t!” Clare hated the tears burning in her eyes as badly as she hated Michelopoulos. “He killed Daddy.”
“Don’t be absurd. Your father died from cancer that had been developing for years. We just didn’t know it.”
“Daddy never got sick until he lost the restaurant and his power. What if the cancer spread so rapidly because his power couldn’t keep it in check any longer once he lost the ring? Daddy would still be alive if it wasn’t for that stupid bet.”
She’d never understood why he would even consider such a risky, foolhardy bet. If he refused to sell Remy’s, why on earth would he consent to the possibility of losing it to his greatest enemy? It just didn’t make sense.
“If it helps,” Helga said in her gentle voice that she reserved for her sickest patients, “I saw your father myself at least a year before he lost the restaurant.”
Helga was a powerful kitchen witch, but she was an even more impressive healer. Few wizards could claim more than one talent, which is why she was one of the most powerful wizards in the world.
“You did?” Clare swiped the tears from her cheeks. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It was his wish to not burden his family with his illness. In fact, he made me promise not to tell you that he was dying so he could choose to tell you in his own way. If I’d known that you blamed Mr. Michelopoulos, I would have told you immediately. I can heal many things, dear, but I couldn’t help your father. The cancer was virulent and barely responded to my magic. I delayed the inevitable as long as possible. The restaurant bet was his last gamble to try to protect you.”
“Too bad he lost.” Selma’s voice cracked with bitterness and anger. “The fool should never have risked his family ring. Clare, you have to get it back.” She softened the edge in her voice, leaning across the table to take her daughter’s hand. “Don’t you want to have a family someday? Fall in love, get married? You can’t as long as we don’t have the Remy ring. You’re the last. If you don’t have children, the Remy talent will die with you anyway.”
Clare pulled free of her mother’s grasp and stood, moving away from the table. Emotion tore at her chest until she couldn’t breathe. Of course she wanted a family. She didn’t want to be the last Remy, no matter how powerful she might be in the kitchen. But everything she knew about Yiorgos Michelopoulos warned her to stay far, far away from the man.
Because of the rivalry between their restaurants—so she’d told herself—she’d done her research long before her father’s death, hoping to find the man’s weakness. A billionaire playboy, Michelopoulos’s picture had been splashed on every newspaper and celebrity rag at one time or another. Gorgeous, rich, and charismatic, of course the man was irresistible.
He discarded women as easily as he bought a new restaurant or hotel, right before he fired everyone regardless of how long they’d been there in order to hire his own staff. Year after year, she’d watched her father accept his plaque for Remy’s starred status, and each year, Michelopoulos had brought a new date to every ceremony. Not just the Missouri awards either—she’d read every article about every reward he’d ever won, and always, a new beauty clung to his arm.
He was the kind of man who always got want he wanted, used it, and then tossed it in the compost bin on his way to the next conquest. He expected to be sought and lusted after, not just for his money but his looks as well.
The last kind of man a woman, who must remain a virgin at all cost, should be around.
Deep down, she couldn’t deny a visceral reaction to the man. Even as a teenager, she’d felt the pull of his magnetism. Although she wouldn’t admit it, she still had a few of those wild and crazy dreams of him stashed away in a corner of her mind.
Dreams she’d had before her father had died and lost their family ring—and her key to a passionate life—at the same time.
“Clare,” her mother began in her wheedling voice.
“I need to speak to Helga,” Clare cut in without turning around. “Privately.”
“I insist, Mother. It’s wizards’ business.”
Selma’s loud sniff proclaimed her hurt at the sharp reminder to her lack of status, but Clare refused to regret her mother’s own decisions. Her mother had known exactly what the cost would be if she chose to marry. What she did regret was always feeling like her mother held a grudge against her for losing that power, especially when Clare faced a childless, loveless life herself.
Helga always managed to strike straight to the heart. “What are you afraid of, dear?”
She took a moment to gather her thoughts while buttering another piece of crusty rustic bread. “He wants something from me. It has to be some kind of trap, and I don’t like going in blind.”
“As he says in the letter, he needs your help at Remy’s.”
Clare turned around, leaning against the counter. “That man would rather cut off his right hand than ask for help. He hates Remy’s. I’m surprised he didn’t shut it down when he won it from Daddy.”
“The bet wouldn’t allow either restaurant to be shut down.”
Clare arched a brow at her mentor. “How much about that bet do you know?”
“Your father was my patient. I knew what he was trying to do, but he swore me to silence.”
Nibbling on the soft inner crumb, she let her mind run wild. Even now, Helga might be keeping secrets about that blasted bet. If Daddy knew he was dying, and he was trying to protect her, what did he hope to accomplish with a bet that risked not just their livelihood but also their magic? “Do you know what Daddy would’ve won if Remy’s had taken the fifth star that year?”
“Michelopoulos’s casino hotel and restaurant in Kansas City, as far as I know.”
Clare frowned. Yeah, the casino was worth a fortune compared to their little family restaurant, but they’d never cared about money or fame before. There has to be something else he was trying to win. But what?
“The details of the bet aren’t really what you’re concerned about, dear, and we both know it.”
Her cheeks colored at the chiding note in her mentor’s voice. “Let’s just say Michelopoulos’s reputation precedes him.”
“And you’re wondering what it would be like if you didn’t have to remain a virgin.”
Now she might as well have stuck her whole head in the oven. “The thought has crossed my mind.”
Helga chuckled. “That’s natural, dear. All of us thought about it at one time or another.”
“That’s not true!”
“Isn’t it? Even as the next head of the Remy family, you would be powerless without your virginity until the ring passed to you. I’ve known wizards who lived a decade or more as a mundane until the ring passed to them. And let me tell you, their talent paid the price for those years of inaccessibility. The cost for passion is high, Clare, very high. For all of us.”
“I know.” She blew out her breath and pushed away from the counter. “Believe me, I’ve heard about nothing else since Daddy died. I just…” Her throat constricted, each word as rough as sandpaper. “I don’t think I’m cut out for chastity the rest of my life.”
“No one ever said you had to remain chaste forever.”
“I said the cost was high, yes. But not forbidden.”
Clare shook her head. “It’s not worth the cost, I get that.”
Helga stood up and cracked a wooden spoon against her palm sharply, the same way she brought her class to order each day. “Have I taught you nothing at all? Magic comes from within you. There is always a cost, depending on your talent and the spell itself. We know you can cook all day in the kitchen and the only cost you must pay is the sweat of your brow. How do you feel after a few hours in the kitchen?”
“Tired, but happy.”
Helga nodded. “Like you’ve gone for a nice, long walk, but not exhausted. Not like a marathon or triathlon.”
“Now say someone barged into your house this very moment and shot me. You have to heal me. How would you feel performing that kind of magic?”
The thought made Clare’s stomach clench with dread. “I couldn’t.”
Helga cracked the spoon against her hand again. “You could. It would hurt terribly. It’d probably take you days, if not weeks, to recover, but if your will was strong enough, you would absolutely bend your kitchen talent into something else. The pain and effort in that bending, the cost to yourself, would empower it. Sacrifice, Clare. The cost you pay enables the magic to be bigger and to work on a talent that you don’t claim as your own if you fully and knowingly embrace the sacrifice.”
Searching her mentor’s face, Clare nodded slowly, her mind whirling. “So you’re saying some people choose to make the sacrifice of their virginity and their gift for something else, to empower their last magic.”
Slipping back into her kooky masquerade—for Clare suspected that was exactly why her mentor dressed so wildly—Helga let out a trilling laugh and bounced toward the door. “I’m just saying that for the right man, darling, it might be worth the cost. Good luck and let me know how it goes with Mr. Michelopoulos!”
Clare collapsed heavily in the chair and dabbed her sweaty cheeks with her apron. Dealing with Helga was sometimes like running the gauntlet. How much worse would it be to deal with an entitled, impossibly arrogant and gorgeous billionaire?
She closed her eyes and shivered, while trying to deny that a kernel of insanity already burned in a deep secret corner of her heart.