“But still too early for a drink,” she countered.
Great. Carry Nation had just bought herself a bar.
Mark walked toward the gleaming wooden length of it, saying over his shoulder, “I’ve got seltzer. Soda. Orange juice. Or I could make you coffee, if you want.”
“Oh. I would like a diet cola. Please.” She followed him, her tasteful leather pumps clicking on his hardwood floor.
Her hardwood floor, Mark reminded himself. He grabbed her Pepsi and shoveled ice into a glass. She didn’t strike him as the kind of girl who drank from a can.
He put the drink on a napkin and slid it across the bar. “You want me to ring that up?”
A gleam appeared in her cool blue eyes. So maybe she had a sense of humor after all. But all she said was, “That won’t be necessary, thank you.”
She sipped her drink and looked around the bar. He knew it all already: the dark booths, the clustered tables, the stuffed pike and the lineup of neon signs on the walls. So he watched her instead.
She swiveled gently back and forth on her stool, back straight, long slim legs in tailored khakis crossed. “Isn’t it a little dark in here?”
It was a bright, clear September morning. The sun, slanting through the shutters, glinted off the bottles behind the bar and the glassy eyes of the stag’s head mounted above the pool table.
Mark raised an eyebrow. “This can’t be the first time you’ve seen the place.”
“No,” she acknowledged. “Kathy Webber showed me the plans.”
Kathy Webber was the real estate agent who had handled the sale of the bar. Mark had met her. New in town, red-haired and hungry. She’d offered to show him the plans, too. Along with some other things.
“She give you the tour, too?”
“Yes. But it’s not the same as actually sitting here like a customer.”
“Most of our customers come at night.”
“It just seems a shame to shut out that wonderful lake view.”
“There is no view at night.”
“The lights from the hotel? The moonlight on the water?”
Mark shrugged and didn’t answer. If she wanted to romanticize the place, that was her business. But the bar’s patrons didn’t come for the view.
She set her drink on the center of her napkin. “We’ll have to do a use study, tracking our sales by the hour.”
A use study, hell. He’d just told her the bar did most of its business at night.
“I’m surprised you didn’t do one already,” he said.
She twisted the pretty gold rings on her fingers. “I should have. I would have. But the owner was in a hurry to sell.”
“Yeah, I heard that.”
If Heather Brown hadn’t been so anxious to sell up and leave town after her husband went to prison, Mark might have had time to scrape up more money.
Nicole left off fiddling with her rings and smiled at him. “I guess I was impulsive.”
She sounded almost pleased, as if “impulsive” was a big deal for her. It made him almost like her.
“I guess you got lucky,” he said.
“That, too. Fortunately, the only other offer for the bar wasn’t serious.”
Mark felt his shoulders tense. “How do you know that?”
“Insufficient capital.” She sipped her diet soda, unaware she’d said anything to offend him. “And from what I understand, the prospective buyer had an inadequate business plan and no background to obtain the necessary bank funding.”
“And you do,” he said flatly.
“Well, yes. I was chief financial officer for Connections.com.”
She didn’t look old enough to be CFO of her own lemonade stand. “Which is what? A dating service?”
“Internet service provider,” she corrected him. “Connections provided immediate hookups and excellent customer service for a low basic rate.”
“Why aren’t you still doing that, then?”
Her gaze dropped back to her rings. “The founder sold the company to a larger provider.”
Mark leaned against the bar. “You agreed with his decision?”
“I profited from it.”
“And decided to sink your profits into running a bar.”
“I decided to invest in providing real goods and services to people with whom I would have a warm, live, human connection, yes.”
Mark thought of inviting Blondie up to his place for some one-on-one, warm, live, human connection and then dismissed the idea. He was past the point where he got off being anybody’s walk on the wild side.
Besides, he didn’t want to get fired that fast.
“You got any experience running a bar?” he asked.
“I’ve read extensively.”
“But you don’t have experience.”
Her lips tightened. “I have a strong work ethic, a business degree from the University of Chicago, sufficient working capital and excellent ideas. I can hire people with experience.”
She sounded like a walking textbook. Small Business Management for Dummies, maybe. Resentment licked along his nerves like a match set to brandy. He lifted an eyebrow. “People like me.”
“It was my understanding you came with the Blue Moon.”
“You mean, like the tables and chairs or the leftover scotch?” He shook his head. “Sorry, babe. I agreed to manage this place while they found a buyer, but I’m not for sale. Whether I stick around or not depends.”
She leaned forward earnestly. “I’m more than willing to keep you on while I complete a needs assessment and determine what changes should be made.”
The flicker of resentment flared into a blaze. He wanted to shock her. He wanted to shake her privileged poise, her cool self-possession. He wanted…a lot of things he could never have.
Awareness of those unattainable things kindled his temper. And his judgment went up in smoke.
Deliberately he let his gaze drift down her slender throat to the first button of her blouse, where the pale-blue silk parted to reveal pale, smooth skin. She stiffened. He looked back at her face, enjoying the flush that stained her cheeks and the widening of her clear blue eyes.
“Big of you,” he said. “But I wasn’t talking about whether you can stomach me. I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll work for you.”
Nicole flipped the dead bolt closed behind lean, dark and dangerous Mark DeLucca and then sagged against the cool, varnished panel of the door. Her heart thudded. Her head pounded.
Things could be worse, she told herself. Things had been worse and she had survived. But clearly, her luck with men wasn’t about to change anytime soon.
And even if her luck did change—if the Fates smiled or her fairy godmother waved her magic wand or the bluebird of happiness decided to poop on Nicole’s head—even then it sure wasn’t going to start with the man who’d just walked out her door.
She closed her eyes. That was the old, bad thinking, she told herself. This was the new, improved Nicole. Her life wasn’t subject to luck. It was about control. She was in control here.
Sure she was. Except her heart still hammered. Her face was flushed.
Sighing, she threaded her way through