THE clatter of dishes and shouting of staff in the kitchen was almost deafening. The chaos and cacophony were made that much greater in comparison to the calm, quiet atmosphere of the dining room just beyond the doors swinging behind the man dressed all in black. Surveying the white-clad figures and gleaming stainless steel, Sullivan Dunkel smiled. Dark Chocolate was an official success.
Owning his own restaurant had been Sullivan’s dream since he was old enough to fix his first bowl of cereal. Tonight marked the one-year anniversary of the realization of that dream. As a young boy on the streets of urban Atlanta, he would never have guessed that the city would welcome his unique, upscale restaurant with open arms.
It was generally held in fine-dining circles that the first year would either make or break a new restaurant. Sullivan wasn’t certain he had taken one deep breath in the past 365 days. The critics had blasted him for forgoing the lucrative Christmas season and opening with a gala invitation-only bash on New Year’s Eve, but as soon as they got a peek at the well-guarded interior and inventive menu, their criticisms had turned to praises: “Less flirty and more feisty” and “Offers a meaty feast for the appetite and the eyes” were two of his favorite comments from recent reviews. Customers had lined up at his door in droves.
Tonight, New Year’s Eve again, they were celebrating with a packed reservations-only crowd. Walking skillfully among the staff without impeding their progress, Sullivan sampled random dishes, patting shoulders and offering praise. No comment or touch he offered was false. If an employee received a commendation, he or she had earned it.
Pushing through the doors at the opposite end of the kitchen, he entered the cooler corridor that led to the bathrooms and offices in one direction and the bar in the other. Making his way back toward the dining room by way of the bar, Sullivan collided with a group of chattering waitresses.
“Did you see him?”
“God, how could you miss that voice?”
“I swear I melted into a steaming pile of goo.”
“Fuck if Craig isn’t crowing over him being seated at his table. Bastard.”
None of the excited women seemed to notice that their boss was standing dumbfounded in the middle of their group as they flowed around him as if he were a rock in a stream, completely unnoticed. “If you wouldn’t mind me asking,” he began in a controlled voice with just an edge of danger, one amplified by his height, wide shoulders, and dark black skin, “exactly what has you all swarming and chattering like a gaggle of geese, and ignoring our customers?”
If Sullivan expected that his question and deepest, disapproving tone would send them scattering back to their duties, he was mistaken. They turned on him like ants spying cake crumbs at a picnic, all talking at once, their excitement rising with each statement.
“Quinn Lawrence is at table three.”
“He’s here doing a limited run of A Streetcar Named Desire.”
“It’s the New York cast.”
“Did you see his eyes?”
“Oh my God, it was like he could see right through me.”
Sullivan stood, mouth hanging open, stunned as the women shifted seamlessly back into their own conversation, completely ignoring him and their jobs. He shook his bald head, his brows drawing together in confusion. He had specifically hired mature, level-headed, well-educated people at all levels to avoid this kind of giggling nonsense. Thank God Craig had the poor man’s table. He had served Brad Pitt two months ago and hadn’t even blinked.
At that moment, Craig sailed into the hallway, flushed and out of breath. “Oh my God,” he squealed, hugging Marcy, who was closest to him. “How am I going to keep from drooling on his food?”
So much for composure, Sullivan thought, throwing up his hands.
On the verge of losing his temper, Sullivan spotted Sherri approaching. With gently guiding hands and a soft smile, she divided the gaggle, sending them all off to do their jobs.
“How do you do that?” Sullivan asked his sister with an incredulous look.
Turning the soothing smile on him, Sherri wrapped her hands around his arm, steering him toward the dining room. “It’s my job, Sully. You hired me because I’m good at it. I’m not going to tell you how I do it. Then you’d be able to get rid of me and train someone else to handle your staff. Now what has you so tense tonight, little brother? Not that you aren’t usually tense, but tonight I do believe you could bend steel,” she muttered, squeezing his clenched bicep through the expensive custom-tailored jacket and silk shirt.
“I don’t know. Apparently someone named Quinn Lawrence has shown up and cast a spell on my staff. Tonight is not the night for this to happen,” Sullivan complained.
“Quinn Lawrence? Is here? In Dark Chocolate? Tonight?” Sherri asked, her deep brown eyes bright.
“Oh God, Sherri, not you too?” Sullivan looked like he was about to panic. “Who in the fuck is this guy?”
“Oh Sully, don’t be stupid. Have you ever known me to lose my head?” Sullivan shook his head. “Good. Quit panicking, okay? If you’d ever stick your head outside this restaurant, you’d know who Quinn Lawrence is. He’s been in three or four major Broadway shows the past couple years, and even a couple movies.” Sherri emphasized her words by poking her brother’s shoulder with her finger.
The pair paused at the archway between the bar and the main dining room. “There he is, right there.” Sherri nodded discreetly toward an elegant blond man dressed impeccably in a black suit and dark shirt. One hand was comfortably holding a glass of neat whisky and he was gesturing with it as he talked.
Sullivan nodded slowly, his black eyes riveted on the man across the room. “They said he was here to do A Streetcar Named Desire.”
“That’s what I heard. He’s the real deal: stage, movies, TV. He’s not just a pretty face.” Sherri gently propelled Sullivan into the dining room before checking the hang of her colorful sari against her dark brown skin. “Go make sure everyone is happy. I’m going to make a circuit through the back.”