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Tess Ullo slid onto a stool and knocked her knuckles against the weathered bar. "The usual, Ron. Stat."
The bartender with ripped biceps and a sweet smile sauntered over. "That kind a day, hon?"
"God, yes." Taking Granny B to the doctor and running all the errands the older woman had piled up on her list wasn't for the faint of heart. Tess's Italian grandmother wasn't of the sweet variety- more like the salty-with-a-side-of-vinegar kind. For seven hours, Tess had "helped" her grandmother find a bath mat the perfect shade of periwinkle. All that running around came after hearing Granny B tell the technician doing the mammogram about her sex life with Tess's long-departed grandfather. Tess would never look at the picture of the stern-faced man dressed in his Navy uniform in quite the same way. Scarred wasn't even the word for what she felt. "Took Granny B out today."
"Yikes. I'll make it a double," Ron said with a twinkle in his eye.
Tess gave a wave to Petra Ostrav who worked in the paint department at Tess's family company. The diminutive woman sat close to her lover, Paola, a beautiful Chilean dancer who headlined at a top-notch gentleman's club. Otherwise there were not many patrons on this late Monday afternoon. Maybe it was the weather-misty rain fell outside the open plantation windows of the bar located not far from the French Quarter in the Marigny district. Or maybe the small crowd was because it was Lent and the devout were being, well, devout.
Two-Legged Pete's was a regular joint for the employees of Frank Ullo Float Builders-owned and operated by Tess's father-so she usually knew someone when she dropped by. Of course, she'd been a more frequent patron at Pete's recently since Mardi Gras was over and she'd stopped seeing her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Nick. She'd caught him with Merri Wynn right after Christmas. Nick had defended himself by claiming they weren't exclusive, but Tess didn't care. Still felt like a slap after they'd spent the previous weekend talking about a possible future together.
Her phone buzzed and she slid it from her purse. The text was from Gigi Vastola, her best friend.
Can't get away from the office. Sorry, babe.
Tess had wanted some girl time with her bestie, but she understood. Gigi worked with a law firm on Canal Street, climbing the ladder toward partnership, which meant her friend often got trapped after hours preparing cases. No biggie. They'd catch up later. Tess would have one drink then maybe head to spinning class or home to watch The Bachelor.
The door opened and Tess caught the movement out of the corner of her eye. She cocked her head and looked-like everyone else in Two-Legged Pete's-at the man in a raincoat shouldering his way in. A navy suit and a conservative tie showed beneath the black trench. He sported a fresh haircut and had a jaw of granite.
But very out of place for a casual joint like Pete's.
Tess snuck a peek at her middle-of-the-week jeans and long-sleeved sweater. Although the sweater had a pinprick dot of bleach on the hem, the bright green made her eyes look deeper. And she'd worn her UGG boots so she didn't look totally sloppy.
Jeez. Why was she taking stock of herself? Because a good-looking dude walked in? Or maybe it was because Granny B had pointed out she needed to do something with her hair and wear more flattering shoes.
She glanced at the table of women who looked like bank tellers. Every woman stared at the guy, too. One woman tucked a curl behind her ear, and another wiped the mascara shadow from under her eyes.
Even Ron sucked in his gut.
The stranger nodded at the bartender, who in turn gave him a quite charming smile. The man slid onto a stool three down from Tess as Ron flew toward him like a magnet toward a metal pole.
"Hello, there," Ron said, showing his dimples.
"Hey," the man said, reaching into the open coat for what she presumed was a wallet. "I'll take a J.B. and Coke, easy on the ice."
Ron lifted an eyebrow. "J.B., huh? My kind of man."
Tess snorted. She couldn't help it. She hadn't seen that kind of bad flirting since Gigi got drunk and tried a top-ten list of bad pickup lines on every man at the Columns on Valentine's Day. Okay, that was only a month ago, but still Ron not only took the cake he'd already licked the spoon.
"Hush," her friend said, slinging an arm her way, but not daring to take his eyes off tall, dark and hewn-from-granite.
Tess giggled. Yes, she actually giggled.
The man looked over at her and smiled.
Oh, hell, no. She'd pull out dimples, too if she had any to use. She smiled as if they all shared one big joke.
"Ron's a consummate flirt," she said, jabbing a finger at her bartender bud. "You'll fall prey if you stand too close."
"Oh, please. You stand closer than anyone, mon amie. You love my flirting." Ron grabbed a bottle of the amber liquid from the back shelf and held a glass to the light.
The stranger laughed and the sound tickled Tess's stomach.
Whoa, girl. Down.
"True," she said, pulling her own drink toward her. Ron made her gin gimlet just as she liked it- simple syrup, muddled cucumber, tarragon and Hendrick's. Delish. "When it comes to flirting, you're the don."
"Ron the Don? Sounds like a wrestler." The stranger quirked an eyebrow. He turned toward her allowing his gaze to travel lightly over her. A shiver ran through her. Dear Bessie, he had the prettiest blue eyes that would exactly match the bathroom rug her Granny B had spent eons searching for. Good humor twinkled in the periwinkle depths, and Tess felt more than the warmth of the gin in her girl parts.
Dang, he looked good enough to sop up a biscuit with, and Tess didn't even eat biscuits. Carbs were the enemy, after all, but this man made her want to change her mind.
"What brings you to Pete's? We don't get much tourist traffic," Ron asked, pouring a generous amount of whiskey into the tumbler then topping it with soda.
"Job interview. Someone at the company mentioned this place when I said I wanted a local pub." The man pulled the drink to him, sipped and nodded in satisfaction.
"Really?" Ron said, swiping at the bar with a towel and sliding a surprised look at Tess, keeping her in the conversation. "Good to know we're getting recommendations around here."
The stranger made a sound in the back of his throat that sounded like an agreement, and Tess sipped her drink, trying not to out-and-out stare at the hotness mere feet from her. She had to be ovu-lating because her hormones had shifted into overdrive and clamored for her to put on some lipstick and sidle closer.
She ignored her hormones because they made bad decisions. In fact, last time they'd led her to a strange bed, overly polite note and a cold cup of coffee the morning after. Tess had stopped letting her girl parts dictate her love life.
The man glanced at the TV that was broadcasting something with racing dirt bikes. "Any way I can talk you into turning to the Rangers game? Wanna check the score."
Ron looked like someone had farted. "Hockey?"
"Nah, baseball. Preseason."
Despite her declaration to keep her distance, Tess slid onto the next stool. "Feliz is pitching. They're checking out his arm after rehab."
The man smiled at her.
God, his smile was good.
No, not good. Sexy. And not just sexy but up-against-a-wall-naked sexy. Tess was certain she'd seen such a smile only twice and the aftereffects had resulted in its moniker. Though up-against-the-wall-naked sex wasn't as hot as it sounded. Required a lot of balance.
"Ugh, baseball?" Ron groaned but lifted the remote. "The only thing good about baseball is the way the players look in those tight pants."
"I'll concede that point," Tess said, dragging her purse over, telling herself she moved closer to the man only because it gave her a better view of the
"That's what all the ladies say," the stranger said. So was that a message to Ron? Or to her? "And, uh, I guess some guys."
Ron found the right station. Texas was up 5-2 in the third inning. The Rangers' designated hitter was at the plate, swinging and missing at low and inside.
"Shamburg's gonna throw that pitch at him all night," Tess said.
"A lady who knows baseball." The man looked pleased at the revelation. But, really, there were lots of girls who liked baseball. Okay, maybe not lots. But others.
"I'm not obsessed but I watch."
Ron nodded. "Yeah, she keeps stats."
The stranger raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
"I like the Astros best," she said, tugging a notebook out of her purse. "I've gotten into a habit of studying batting averages and making predictions. My brother was a bookie during his college years and paid me to help him. Old habits die hard and now I like the whole challenge of dissecting the game."
"Bookie? Does he still-"
"Nah, he's a priest."
The man's laughter made her stomach twitch. He looked even better laughing and the bar lights caught the rain droplets in his dark hair. Her hand rose to wipe them away, but she caught herself in time and instead lifted the pen, jotting down the starting pitcher and his ERA.
"I'm Graham." Hotness extended a hand.
"Tess." She tucked the pen and pad into her purse and took his hand. It was damp but warm. "Nice to meet you."
Now that they'd introduced themselves she definitely wanted to keep the conversation flowing, but couldn't come up with a topic. Maybe more baseball?
"Hey, there. I'm Angela," a woman drawled from behind Tess.
Graham spun on his stool. "Oh, hi."
The woman who'd earlier tucked her hair and put on lip gloss stood behind them with a gleam in her eye. Like a predator.
Graham pulled at his tie.
"Would you like to join me and my friends? We're celebrating a promotion, and we've ordered stuffed mushrooms and smoked oysters." Angela gave Graham a come-hither gaze that made Tess shift on her stool. Jeez, the woman was good.
Graham looked ambushed and his eyebrows lowered a fraction. Tess could almost hear the wheels creaking, turning, churning, trying to figure out how to respond to the overt invite.
"Well, I'll take some of those stuffed mushrooms," Tess joked.
Angela shot her "the look"-the one that said something needed to be stuffed, and it wasn't the mushrooms.
Graham looked like a man who had swallowed a lemon. Okay, maybe not that uncomfortable or sour, but Tess could tell he didn't want to go with Angela and couldn't say so without being rude.
Aw.he was a sweet guy. Tess should help him.
"Actually Graham and I have been catching up," Tess said.
A few seconds tripped by and finally her handsome stranger nodded. "Yeah, it's crazy and such a coincidence, but Tess was my blind date to Sadie Hawkins back in '97."
Tess rolled her eyes. She had been eleven years old in '97, but she wouldn't correct him. If Graham said they went to Sadie Hawkins together, they went to Sadie's together. "Small world, huh? All because he asked Ron to turn to the Rangers' game."
Graham gave Angela a small regretful shrug and then gave his attention to Tess. "You know, stuffed mushrooms would be good before we go to dinner."
Well, all righty then.
"Perfect," Tess said, with a sunny smile.
Angela stood there for a moment, looking unconvinced. Graham turned back to her. "Thanks for the offer, Angela, but I don't want to crash your girls' night out. Go celebrate, and I'll send a round of drinks for you and your friends."
Angela gave a shrug and fake smile. "That's sweet of you."
"The least I can do after that nice invite."
"Send the waitress. She's been on break for fifteen minutes and we're empty," she said to Ron before sashaying to her friends.
"You're the nice guy my mom's been begging me to find," Tess cracked, admiring the way Graham's dark hair brushed the collar of his white dress shirt. The tugging at his throat had loosened the striped power tie and he'd unbuttoned the top button showing gorgeous tanned skin at his throat. His five o'clock shadow gave him a rakish air. "But you don't have to feel obliged to take me to dinner."
"Of course I don't. But come to think of it, you do remind me of Ainsley Braddock, my Sadie's date."
Huh. What did that mean? He wasn't taking her to dinner?
Disappointment stung her. Which was crazy. She didn't know this man from Adam. Which she always thought a stupid saying because she didn't know Adam. Okay, she had a cousin named Adam, but-
"I would love to take you to dinner. That is, if you're free."
Tess nodded, wondering if it was a mistake to look so eager. Her stomach growled and she decided dinner was dinner. And if it were with a handsome stranger, she'd have news to share with Gigi when she called her later. There was something appealing about being spontaneous, something exciting about having dinner with Graham of the power tie and wing tips. "A friend was supposed to meet me after work but couldn't get off. I haven't eaten yet so.that sounds fun."
Graham lifted his glass and clinked it against the one she held in her hand. "Then it's a date."
They both drank and Ron shook his head. "How do you do it? Any time I go to a bar, I go home with a tab and that's it."
Tess laughed. "Joanne would be pissed if you came home with anything other than a bar tab."
"Pregnant women are such downers. She used to be fun," Ron grumbled.