Tom took a desultory swipe at the bar with his rag. It was clean, or as clean as he could get it without stripping it down to bare wood and starting over. He watched Bobby Sue take orders from the customers sprinkled around the lunch tables. Food service wasn’t exactly their biggest source of revenue, but people liked Clem’s burgers and enchiladas, and she was beginning to branch out into more interesting things, some soups and salads. They weren’t making a lot of money off food yet, but the customer base was building.
Even with the widely spaced lunch tables, Bobby Sue was having trouble getting around. Tom figured her arthritis was acting up again. At her age she should probably be sitting with her feet up, knitting an afghan or something. Instead, here she was limping from table to table, writing orders on her green pad. Part of the reason she still worked the lunch crowd was her own aversion to what she called “idleness”. The rest of it was most likely Bobby Sue’s boy, Leon, who had a fondness for get-rich-quick schemes that quickly turned into get-poor-quick.
Oh well, better than a fondness for crystal meth and petty theft, like Tom’s long-lost brother Burton. Tom just hoped Burton had the good sense to stay lost.
Leon himself pushed open the kitchen door and headed toward the bar with a tray of glasses from the dishwasher. Tom had taken him on originally as a favor to Bobby Sue, but Leon wasn’t all that bad. He could load the dishwasher at least, and sweep up. Besides, Tom sort of liked having people around who had a stake in the place, which Leon did, thanks to his mother.
Chico lounged in the doorway to the beer garden. They didn’t need a bouncer with the lunch crowd, but he liked to carry the trays for Bobby Sue. And Tom got a kick out of seeing the tourists’ reaction when he did.
Tom stopped wiping. He wasn’t sure he’d really heard anyone say anything, what with the jukebox blaring Reckless Kelly in the corner.
“Excuse me?” The voice was louder, but still faint.
He turned toward the other end of the bar, toward the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
Tall. Maybe five-ten or so. Hair the color of a moonless night, falling straight to her shoulders. Skin the pure white of marble, so that her faintly curving eyebrows stood out against it like parentheses. Full lips, dark pink.
And blue eyes. Sky blue. With a dark circle around the outer edge of the iris and lashes like dark smudges against her cheeks. He’d be willing to bet she wasn’t wearing makeup. Everything was natural. If she ever put on mascara, she’d probably have to carry a stick to beat off the male population of Konigsburg.
Of course, now that he got a closer look, he realized she was dressed in some of the worst clothes he’d ever seen on such a glorious woman. At least he assumed she was glorious. Given the bagginess of her jeans and T-shirt it was hard to tell. Her clothes were so nondescript she might as well have been wearing bib overalls.
Lord have mercy!
“Excuse me?” she said for the third time, her voice becoming somewhat sharper.
Tom had the feeling she’d go on saying it, maybe getting a little more pissed, until he pulled himself together enough to answer her. He took a deep breath, dragging his scattered wits back into line. “Yes, ma’am.”
“I was wondering…that is…”
She paused, licking her lips, and Tom felt a jolt of electricity straight to his groin. If she kept that up he’d be vaulting the bar in another five minutes. “Yes?” he said encouragingly.
“Do you happen to know who owns the shop next door, the one that’s vacant?” It came out in a rush, as if she were trying to say the words before she lost her nerve.
“Yes ma’am, I do. That is, I own it.” Shit, he sounded like a shy schoolboy himself all of a sudden. The brunette had a hell of an effect.
“Oh.” She licked her lips again. “Well. I’d like to discuss leasing that shop. That is, if it’s available. Is it available?”
Tom frowned. Not only was the shop available, he’d been trying to find a renter ever since Ken Ferguson had closed his T-shirt shop and taken off for parts unknown, owing a couple of months’ rent and leaving him with a complete stock of cheesy T-shirts in his back room. “It’s available.”
“Oh, good.” The brunette gave him a dazzling smile he felt all the way to the tips of his toes. Apparently keeping a poker face was not part of her negotiating style. “Maybe we could talk about it then.” She reached a hand across the bar. “I’m Deirdre Brandenburg.”
Tom nodded, taking her incredibly soft, warm hand in his. “Tom Ames.” Reluctantly, he let go again.
She glanced quickly around the room. “Is there an office where we can discuss this, Mr. Ames?”
Tom watched Bobby Sue limp toward the kitchen. His only office at the Faro was a prep table near the walk-in refrigerator. Somehow he didn’t think the brunette would be impressed, and Clem might drive them out with a meat cleaver if she was feeling feisty. He shook his head. “Sorry. I have to cover the bar.”
He caught her glancing at the empty stools. Okay, so covering the bar didn’t currently take a lot of effort. “Have a seat,” he said quickly. “Can I get you something to drink? Maybe a soda?”
Deirdre Brandenburg shook her head as she slid onto a barstool in front of him. “That’s okay, I’m fine. About the shop, what kind of rent are you asking?”
Ferguson had been paying fifteen hundred a month, when he’d paid, but Tom hadn’t had any nibbles yet at that price. And the shop had been empty now for a couple of months. They were too far up Main for a lot of tourist traffic. “A thousand a month. First and last month in advance.”
“Oh.” The brunette’s forehead furrowed slightly as she chewed on her lower lip. “What’s the square footage?”
Tom shrugged. “I don’t know off the top of my head. I could look it up. It’s a single room in front with a storage area at the back of the building. There’s access to the delivery entrance for the Faro at back too.”
“Could I get in to look at it? All I’ve been able to do so far is peek through the windows.”
Tom sighed. A more trusting man would give her the key and let her look. But trusting men didn’t usually own bars like the Faro. And if they did, they soon learned not to be so trusting. He himself had been born suspicious. “If you can wait a few minutes, I’ll take you over there.”
“Of course.” The brunette turned as he signaled across the room. He watched her eyes widen in consternation as Chico lumbered toward them.
“Chico’s the bouncer. His bark is usually worse than his bite,” he explained. “Although not always.”
Chico pulled out a barstool and sat. “What?”
“I need you to take over the bar for a few minutes while I show Ms. Brandenburg here what Ferguson’s shop looks like inside.”
Chico glanced at the brunette for the first time, narrowing his eyes slightly as he studied her. “Why?”
The brunette swallowed hard. Chico wasn’t making much effort to be charming.
“I’d like to lease the shop,” she murmured, her voice dropping again.
“What for?” Chico leaned back against the bar. “Crummy location. Lousy economy. What can you sell we don’t already have more of than we need right now?”
Succinctly put. Tom leaned forward on his elbows.
“Coffee,” the brunette muttered. She gave Chico a look of mixed terror and defiance.
“We got coffee.”
“Good coffee.” Her voice sounded slightly more firm.
Chico shrugged. “We got good coffee.”
Deirdre Brandenburg raised her chin. All of a sudden her eyes were flashing. “Not as good as mine,” she snapped.
Chico grinned, slowly, which was a fairly terrifying sight in itself. He always reminded Tom of a smiling rhinoceros. “Well, then, you got something somebody’s likely to buy.” He turned to Tom. “I’ll keep an eye on things. All they want is beer with their burgers, anyway.”
“Right.” Tom opened the gate at the end of the bar and motioned to the brunette to follow him.
Deirdre’s heart was beating so fast she was afraid she might faint. The bouncer, Chico, was the biggest man she’d ever seen, including some of Craig Dempsey’s old football buddies. He looked like one of the villains in biker movies, with his long black hair, his bandana, his moustache and goatee. She wasn’t sure how she’d worked up the courage to talk back to him. Maybe because for a few moments he’d sounded like her father.
She shook her head. She needed to get hold of herself. Even if this wasn’t a world she was familiar with, she could still make it work. She was smart, she was experienced, and she wasn’t going to take any more shit from anybody.
Oh yeah, as a mantra that really works well.
Ahead of her, the landlord, Tom Ames, was unlocking the door to the shop. She took a moment to study him. Maybe a little over six feet, but not husky. Lean, tough body. Close-cut blond hair. Blue eyes the color of ice.
That ice-blue gaze had seemed to bore straight through her when she’d asked about the rent. She had a feeling he was way ahead of her. Probably already knew what she was going to ask and knew how to turn her down.
One step at a time, Deirdre.
She moved inside the shop, blinking in the sudden dimness. Sunshine streamed in from the front window, and from the two side windows on the wall away from the Faro.
“The previous tenant left sort of…unexpectedly,” Ames explained. “I didn’t do much more than clear out the stock he left on the shelves.”
Deirdre turned slowly, studying the room. The walls were in worse shape than she’d realized, with scuff marks and gouges. The concrete floor felt gritty beneath her feet. She turned toward the counter at the back. “Is that the storeroom behind the counter?”
Ames nodded. “I’ve got some of the previous owner’s stock back there now, but I could clear it out. Maybe.”
She stepped up to the door, peering through to the darker room beyond. There was a utility sink at the side. Several boxes were piled against the back wall. “Looks like a small space.”
“It’ll be larger without all the T-shirts.”
“Does it have plumbing? Rest rooms?”
He shrugged. “The back room has water. There’s a door through to the bar for rest rooms.”
“Right.” She turned back to him again. “It should work for me. And I like the location.”
He frowned. “Next to a bar?”
“Away from the central retail area. I’m going to be roasting coffee beans. Some stores might not like the smell next door.”
“Roasting coffee?” He raised an eyebrow.
“Right. Custom blends. Partly for restaurants, partly for walk-ins.”
He folded his arms across his chest, leaning back against the counter. “You’ve done this before?”
She nodded. “I worked for a specialty coffee shop in college and I interned with a coffee roaster for a year.”
“And you’ve got the equipment you need?”
Okay, tricky. “I know what I need, and where to get it. I don’t have it yet.”
Deirdre smiled. “Docia Toleffson is my cousin. She can vouch for me. So can my Aunt Reba. She runs a foundation in San Antonio.”
“Okay.” Ames pushed himself up from the counter. “Works for me. I’ll have my accountant draw up the paperwork-he’s Docia’s brother-in-law, as a matter of fact. First and last month’s rent in advance and you’ll be good to go.”
She took a breath, steadying herself. “Yes. About that.”
“The rent. I can give you the first and last month in advance. But I can’t give you more than that. Yet.” She licked her lips. Even giving him the first and last month in advance would cut deeply into the little she had in the bank. Once she paid him, she’d have less than a thousand dollars to live on until she found a temporary job.
Ames leaned back against the counter again, frowning. “Yet?”
“I’m…I can’t get access to my funds right now. For the next three months, in fact. But once I’ve found a job to tide me over, I can begin paying you on account. And, as I said, I can give you the two thousand up front.”
Ames’s frown looked even darker. “Look, Ms. Brandenburg…”
“I know it sounds awful,” Deirdre blurted. “I mean, I wouldn’t trust me either. But if you call Docia, she can tell you. I’m honestly good for it. And I’ll start paying you as soon as I’ve found some kind of work.”
The frown didn’t disappear exactly, but he looked a little less dubious. “What kind of job are you looking for? What were you doing before you came here?”
She shrugged a little helplessly. Executive vice president of a Fortune 500 company. Right. Which really explains why I only have two thousand dollars to pay you right now. “I was doing office work. But right now I’m just looking for a job. I’m not fussy about what it is.”
He stared down at his feet, then back up again. “Tell you what. I could use another waitress and barmaid. If you’re interested. Pay’s crappy, but the tips would be good. Probably. And you get lunch and dinner.”
She licked her lips again. “I’ve never been a waitress. Or a barmaid. But I guess I could learn.”
Ames stood up again. “I guess you could. It’s not exactly rocket science.” He extended his hand. “Deal, Ms. Brandenburg?”
Deirdre blew out another breath, then took his hand. “Deal, Mr. Ames.”