Brand New Me

By: Meg Benjamin

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.

“Excuse me?”

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.”

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