Joe was doing his best to fade into the bottles behind the bar. “Joe’s off now.”
“I would have managed.”
“They teach you how to mix drinks in business school?”
“No,” she admitted. “But I pour a mean glass of chardonnay.”
Mark stopped inventorying the glassware for the evening rush to stare at her. Little Miss Michigan Avenue wasn’t actually poking fun at herself, was she?
She offered him a small smile. It didn’t transform her face the way the other one did, but it was still very, very nice. “Thank you for coming in,” she said. Like she meant it.
He lifted one shoulder. “Don’t thank me. That’s what you pay me for.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
Uh-oh. Another minute, and he might start liking this chick. And that would be as big a mistake as mixing beer and brandy.
“Try staying out of my way,” he suggested, not caring if he sounded like a jerk. Hell, hoping he sounded like a jerk, like somebody she wouldn’t in a million years want to get to know better. The last thing he needed was another sweet-smelling, spoiled blonde complicating his life.
…need to consider the possibility that you are, indeed, Daniel’s father.
A couple of regulars dragged in—the eight-to-four shift was ending at the nearby paper plant—and Mark greeted them with smiles and relief.
“Hey, Tom, Ed. How’s it going?” He moved smoothly to pull a beer and pour a whiskey, comfortable with the demands of his job, easy in the world he’d created.
A world where he knew almost everybody by name and could give them what they wanted without having to think about it too much.
Okay, he was good, Nicole admitted several hours into Mark’s shift.
Good to look at, too, she thought as he turned to set a drink at the other end of the bar and she had the chance to admire his hard, lean back and the fit of his Rough Rider jeans.
Not that his appearance mattered, she reminded herself. She was here to evaluate his job performance, not his butt. She stole another surreptitious glance. Although at the moment she had no complaint with either one.
He didn’t spin or flip or juggle bottles. Unlike Joe, who had kept up an unthreatening stream of jokes and small talk through the afternoon, he didn’t try to entertain the customers. Surely he could offer them more than, “What can I get you?” and “Be with you in a sec.”
But he never got an order wrong, Nicole noticed. He never asked a customer to repeat one, either. His memory—and his patience—astounded her.
It wavered only once, when an older man in a well-cut suit and ill-fitting hairpiece gulped half his drink and then demanded a new one.
Mark raised an eyebrow. “Can I ask you what’s wrong with what you’ve got?”
The older man scowled. “I ordered a Manhattan, damn it. I can’t even taste the scotch in this.”
Mark whisked the offending drink away. “Let me take care of that for you.”
Nicole shifted on her stool at the other end of the bar. Maybe the University of Chicago didn’t offer courses in mixology, but…
“What’s in a Manhattan?” she asked as Mark approached her perch.
“Vermouth, bourbon. Bitters.” He barely glanced at her. His eyes and hands were busy on his bottles. Below his turned-back sleeves, he had long, lean hands and muscled forearms and—heavens, was that a tattoo riding the curve of his biceps, peeking below the cuff? “But our guy doesn’t want that,” he continued. “He wants a Rob Roy.”
Nicole tore her attention from his arm. Liquor was expensive. She wasn’t giving away free drinks because Mr. Hairpiece didn’t know his ingredients. “I’m sure if you explained to him that he ordered the wrong drink—”
“—I’d be wasting my breath.” Mark added a twist of lemon peel to the fresh drink. “The customer’s always right, boss. I’m surprised they didn’t teach you that in business school,” he added over his shoulder.
Cocky, conceited, know-it-all jerk. Nicole twisted her rings in her lap.
“Well, hel-lo, pretty lady.” A warm, male, lookee-what-we-got-here voice swam up on her other side. “I haven’t seen you here before.”
Nicole squeezed her eyes briefly shut. She was a loser magnet, that’s what she was. She took a quick peek through her lashes at the man crowding her bar stool. Not quite young, not exactly good-looking, and married. She would bet on it. She sighed.
“That’s because I haven’t been here before.”
He laughed as if she’d said something funny. “Guess it’s up to me to make you feel welcome, then.”
“No, thank you, I—”
He leaned into her, his stomach nudging the back of her arm, his face earnest and too close. “What’ll you have?”
“Miss Reed doesn’t need you to buy her a drink, Carl.” Mark DeLucca’s voice was edged with amusement and something else. “She owns the bar.”
The pressure on her arm eased as the man—Carl—took a step back. “This bar?”
“This very one. And if you want to come back, I suggest you take your beer and go join your pals.”
“Well, excuse me,” Carl blustered.
“You bet,” Mark said.
Nicole was grateful. Embarrassed. Defensive. The author of Losing the Losers in Your Life was adamant that a successful life plan did not include waiting for rescue.
As soon as her new admirer was out of earshot, Nicole snapped, “I could have handled him.”
Mark removed a couple of glasses from the bar and gave the surface a quick wipe down. “Old Carl would have liked that.”
Her face flamed. “I meant, I can look after myself.”
Mark paused in the act of emptying an ashtray. He gave her a quick, black, unreadable look that scanned her from the top of her smooth blond head to the glittering rings on her fingers and nodded once. “Yeah, I can see that. My mistake.”
And after that he pretty much treated her as if she wasn’t there.
Nicole squirmed on her wooden bar stool. Well, she squirmed on the inside. On the outside, she sat with perfect poise, her spine straight, her knees crossed, typing her observations into the slim-line laptop she’d set up on the bar.
Men and women on their way home from work were replaced by young people out to have a good time. Couples pressed together in the booths in the back. Singles hooked up at tables or swayed by the jukebox. Nicole sipped her Diet Pepsi and let it all wash over her, the raucous music and the flickering TV, the drifts of cigarette smoke, the bursts of laughter. It was louder, looser, more exciting than she’d imagined.
Thrilling, because now it was hers.
She typed a note about the music. The jukebox selection needed updating. She couldn’t imagine her clientele playing “Takin’ Care of Business” that often if they had an adequate choice.
Mark greeted most of his customers—her customers—by name, took their orders, poured their drinks. No one had to wait more than forty-five seconds. No one was neglected.
Well, except for Nicole. Mark kept her supplied with Pepsi and otherwise ignored her.
He did a good job for the previous owner.
Maybe. He certainly collected his fair share of tips, Nicole thought, with an eye on the beer mug beside the register. And more than his fair share of interested glances.
A sultry brunette in big hoop earrings leaned her cleavage on the bar. A giggling group of teenage girls, shrink-wrapped