Zayne closed his eyes.
For a moment, all the sounds around him seemed to fade away. The crackling of the stoves’ flames, the clanging of pots and pans, the chatter among the kitchen workers… All of it was gone. He took a slow, deep breath and willed the frantic pounding in his heart to subside.
But it didn’t.
“Earth to Zayne…” Victoria’s familiar voice broke through the silence, calling Zayne abruptly back from his moment of near-peace. “Dude, are you okay?”
“Y-yeah.” He stammered nervously, opening his eyes. Victoria stood at the stove beside him, stirring a pot of noodles. “Sorry. I’m just… Having a moment.” He admitted with a small laugh.
Zayne had foolishly assumed that opening day would be a piece of cake. After all, he’d done this all before, hadn’t he? But last time was so different. He didn’t own 80% of the business that time. He wasn’t the sole person in charge of the entire restaurant. The entire fate of the business wasn’t resting on his shoulders.
It was like he’d been pedaling down the street with a set of training wheels last time. It was fun and exciting, but safe.
Today, the training wheels were off and he was coasting downhill. At top speed. Without a helmet.
He swallowed nervously. Christ, calm down! You can do this.
“Relax.” Victoria seemed to echo his thoughts. “You’ve got this. We’ve been doing great so far, haven’t we?” She reached over as she spoke, adjusting the heat on one of the burners.
Zayne nodded. She was right. They had been doing great… For the two hours they’d been open. They wouldn’t close until 10 that night. Eight more hours. Zayne tried his best not to think of all the things that could go wrong between now and then, but it was hard not to. This was his baby. His dream. And he couldn’t mess it up.
“Look, why don’t you let me take the reigns in here for a while?” Victoria continued. “And you can go check on the dining room and patio until you’re done with your ‘moment’.” She suggested kindly. “The customers would probably like to meet the owner anyway. Good for business, right?”
“Yeah… If you don’t mind, sure.” He replied, grateful. “Thanks, Victoria. I just need a breather, I guess.” Zayne had been going nearly non-stop since very early that morning, getting everything ready for their grand opening. He hadn’t sat down or even left the kitchen in hours.
“No worries, I get it.” She smiled at him. “Aw, shit…” Her attention quickly turned back to the pot she’d been stirring, which now appeared to be boiling a bit too aggressively.
Zayne quickly slipped away, eager to go see how his customers were doing.
“Welcome to LuzLicht.” He smiled warmly at an older couple he found seated on the patio. “I’m the owner, Zayne Rosebrook. Are you enjoying your meals this afternoon?”
“Oh, most definitely!” The woman beamed as she spoke. “This is delicious.”
The man, whom Zayne assumed was her husband, nodded in agreement. His mouth appeared to be too full of food to form a proper reply.
Zayne gave the man a kind nod of acknowledgement. “I’m so glad. If you need anything, please let one of our servers know. Enjoy the rest of your afternoon.”
“Excuse me.” A familiar voice called from over his shoulder. “Did you say you’re the owner? I’d like to file a complaint, please.”
His lips curled into a smile as he turned around. “Of course, miss.” Zayne’s voice was teasing. “What seems to be the problem?”
“This food is much too delicious. I can’t stop eating it.” She seemed to be struggling to keep a straight face. “I can’t afford to get fat in my line of work, you know.”
“My apologies. In that case, I suggest trying out the Corner Kitchen. I hear it’s run by some asshole named Greg who doesn’t know shit about decent food.”
Hope burst into hysterics, finally dropping the act. Zayne smiled as he took a seat across from her.
“I’m glad you could make it.” He said seriously.
“Of course! You think I’d miss your opening day?” She smiled. “The only reason I couldn’t be there last time was that big shoot for Elle in Champs Les Sims.”
Zayne shrugged. “Wouldn’t have been worth it anyway…”
“True.” Hope paused to take another bite from her plate. “This place is so much better… And I’m not just saying that.” Her tone was suddenly serious. “This is the type of place you always talked about. This is your dream. I’m so happy for you!”
“Thanks! I really feel good about this. It really feels like it’s mine this time, y’know?”
Hope nodded. “I do. And I seriously love everything about this place. It’s just what you always wanted. Modern mixed with traditional, right?”
He nodded. “Exactly.”
“It’s so perfect. Especially the name… It’s for your parents, isn’t it?”
“Yeah… I went with the whole ‘light’ thing.” He explained. “And ‘Luz’ kinda sounds like their names too… It all worked out really well.”
“I love it! I think they would too.” She replied seriously. “And I saw your aunt and grandfather leaving while I was walking in. They didn’t notice me, and I kinda overheard them talking about you.” Hope smiled. “They’re so proud of you, Zayne. It was really sweet.”
He felt a sudden warmth in his cheeks, but not an entirely unpleasant one. He opened his mouth to speak once more, but before he could reply, he heard musical voice calling out to him.
“There he is, the man himself!”
Zayne smiled as he rose to his feet and turned to face her. “Hey, stranger. I didn’t think you were gonna make it.” He leaned down to give Abigail a soft kiss on her cheek, drawing a soft giggle from her lips.
“My boss is still being a jerk about time off.” She confessed. “But I’m on my lunch break, so… What better place to grab a bite to eat?”
“Are you gonna have enough time?” He asked.
“Um… I will if the owner can pull a few strings for me?” Abigail teased. The way she smiled sent a flurry of butterflies through Zayne’s stomach.
“For you? Of course.” He gave her a little wink.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could have sworn he caught a glimpse of Hope rolling her eyes. Zayne glanced down at her. The smile had completely vanished from her face. What the hell? He did his best to hide his confusion.
“Oh, um… I should probably introduce you guys, huh?” Zayne continued, suddenly nervous. “Abigail, this is Hope. Hope, Abigail.”
He noticed Abigail’s smile flicker for just a moment. “Nice to meet you.” Zayne did not miss the slight discomfort in her voice.
“Yeah. You too.” Hope’s smile seemed so forced.
Abigail’s, though hesitant, at least felt somewhat genuine. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Oh, really?” The other woman replied stiffly. Her eyes flicked toward Zayne for a moment. “I wish I could say the same.”
What is her problem?! “So… Wanna find a seat, Abigail? And I’ll go whip something up for you?” He suggested. “What would you like?”
“Hm… You can surprise me.” She smiled sweetly at him as she spoke.
Zayne watched as she headed back downstairs to find a table.
He turned back toward Hope as soon as Abigail was out of earshot. “Are you okay?” He asked, half concerned, half annoyed. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I’m fine.” She shrugged, taking another bite of her food. For some reason, Hope seemed unable to meet his gaze. “It was great to see you, Zayne.” The cheerfulness in her voice did not seem to match her expression. “But I should let you get back to work.”
“Uh, okay.” He replied helplessly. “See you later, I guess.”