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When summer broke in Manhattan, the sun burned hotter, the days turned muggy, men demanded their beer ice-cold, and women expected the martinis chilled. The sun was setting on one such blistering Thursday evening when the middle-aged female approached the long mahogany bar, a blush on her cheeks and her mouth creased in an apologetic smile.
Gabriel Cormac Silas O'Sullivan, owner, bartender and general patsy of a brother, felt a familiar sense of inescapable doom.
"I think there's a problem with the ladies'room," the woman began. "For the last ten minutes the door's been locked, and there's moaning coming from inside. Sometimes female, sometimes male. I think there's something lewd going on in there."
Tessa Hart, an employee whom Gabe had previously considered loyal, turned to him, trying not to laugh. "He's your brother."
Ah, yes, his brother. More like the worm in his tequila, the backwash in his beer, the sediment in his wine. And that was being kind. "I don't want to claim him. Not really." There were three O'Sullivan brothers, but Gabe and Daniel were normal. Sean, not so much.
Tessa pointed an accusing finger at him. "You own this place. Do your job."
Thus he was shamed into performing his duty as owner of Prime, the infamous Manhattan bar that had been in the O'Sullivan family for nearly eighty years. Nowadays, the wooden floors creaked when you walked across them, but they glistened from fresh polish. Three dark mahogany bars shaped to form a "U" around the room, a brass railing running underneath.
Rows of photographs covered the walls. Some famous mugs, some mugs not so famous. Front and center behind the main bar were the pictures of the last four noblegenerations of O'Sullivans. An O'Sullivan had poured for sitting Presidents, Mafia dons, Joe DiMaggio and Bob Dylanand now, apparently, this fine establishment was serving as the No-Tell Motel for one Sean O'Sullivan.
Oh, how the mighty had fallen.
Gabe scanned the bar, wondering which nubile young thing Sean had torpedoed this time. Slowly it dawned on him exactly who was missing and he grinned. Okay, maybe Sean wasn't so bad. Unfortunately that didn't put the ladies' room back in business.
He took the old, narrow staircase down to the twin doors that marked the ladies'room and the men's room, then rapped once on the former, hard and authoritative.
"Open up. It's the police. According to regulation ten-forty-three of the NY City Code, lascivious conduct is forbidden in public places."
From beyond the door came Sean's voice, stuck in the throes of more passion than Gabe wanted to imagine. "This wasn't a public place until you stuck your yap in it, Officer. And by the way, there's no Regulation ten-forty-three. I know the law."
"Are you insulting one of New York's finest?"
"No, I'm insulting my baby brother. Now go away and spare your brother a good sevenah, darling, that's perfect make it fifteen minutes."
"We have paying customers who need to use the facilities."
There was a pointed silence, followed by more lurid groaning.
Gabe leaned against the door, making himself comfortable. "Did you tell her you were a lawyer, Sean? Because I don't know why the women keep falling for that one. I guess it's hard for a man in the sanitation industry to attract a certain class of woman, although you ended up married easy enough. Could have been the pregnancy, I suppose? How's Laura doing, by the way?"
Gabe waited, counted to three and finally heard the low murmur of heated voices. Not heated enough, dammit. Who knew a woman with so much power in the health department would be so desperate? Didn't matter, Gabe could stoop even lower. "The clinic called. The test results were positive, but with proper medication and professional counseling, you'll be able to live a completely normal life."
Eventually Sean's voice sounded again, a little less steady this time. "Go away. And have pity on a man who's about to go onto his fourth tour of duty and won't see a woman again for the nextaahhhnine months."
How any womanespecially a NewYork City health inspectorcould mistake his brother for a soldier was out of the range of rational possibility.Yet for some reason, rationality, Sean and women never went together anyway. Gabe banged on the door.
Sean yelled back. "You're embarrassing the poor woman, Gabe. Be a gentleman and leave."
Gabe shook his head. "All right, but don't think I won't remember this," he threatened.
"Instead of worrying about me, why don't you worry about Tessa?"
So typical of Sean. Diverting attention from the matters at hand. Three-card monte with emotional overtones. Sadly Gabe was suckered into it, because Tessa had enough problems to worry about, and it would be hell if something else came up and bit her in the butt. "What about Tessa?" he asked.
"Employees not coming to Dr. Phil? Tsk-tsk "
"What about Tessa?" Gabe repeated, seriously considering busting the door down, but he'd only replaced it three months ago, and doors weren't cheap, especially the seven-feet tall, two-feet wide, custom-made kind.
"Give me another six minutes and I'll tell you the whole story, because it's obvious she's keeping secrets from you."
With a frustrated sigh, Gabe put an "out of order" sign on the ladies' room door and went back upstairs. Thursday nights lacked the chaos of the weekend, but when the Yankees were on television, the crowd skewed to beer and bets. Even some of the daytime regulars were there, as well. Judging by the happy faces, the Yankees were winning.
An embarrassingly short two minutes later Sean appeared at the top of the basement steps with a tall brunette wearing schoolmarm glasses. Sean lifted her hands to his lipsjust like Sir Fucking Lancelot. Jeez.
"I take it we passed inspection?" asked Gabe, keeping his face purposefully bland. Not that he needed to worry. The health inspector shot Sean a punch-drunk smile. "With flying colors. Flying. Colors," she murmured, and Sean beamed, an already healthy ego getting supersized. Shit. Sometimes Gabe wanted to shoot his brother, but Sean had connections everywhere, and the bar had never failed a health inspection yet. Okay, Gabe would forgive him. Right now he was more concerned about Tessa anyway.
He shot her a quick mental-health-check glance. Everything looked normal. She was mixing drinks with her usual Hollywood flair, tossing glasses into the air, to the delight of her male customers. But when she listened to an order, Gabe noticed the telltale tugging on the lock of hair that fell in her face.
Tessa attracted trouble like rain on a busted umbrella, but that didn't matter to Gabe. When his employees needed him, he was there. Especially for Tess.
TESSA KNEW A TRAIN wreck idea when she heard it, and this was definitely one. She shot Gabe her best mean-girl glare, the one she'd been practicing in the mirror for nearly all of her twenty-six years. All that practice didn't mean she was any good, but she had to keep trying.
"I am not moving in with you. You're my boss, among other things. And don't think you can make me say yes by flashing those earnest blue eyes in my direction, because I'm learning to say the word no to men. No. N.O. Non. Nyet. Nein. I can say it in Navajo. Dooda. See, I can say no."
To make sure her point was not missed, she lit a flame over the flaming Jägerbomb shooter she was making, still working the mean-girl glare.
Gabe hefted a bucket of ice into the bin, biceps rippling with the effort. The world's most perfect bartender. Understanding, thoughtful and sexy as hell.
"It's not like that, Tess," he said, flashing those earnest blue eyes in her direction. Four women sighed as they watched him work. Gawd, it was like synchronized lusting.
Tessa pulled a draft beer, then slid it down the bar to the waiting customer. In her heart she knew Gabe meant well. Gabriel O'Sullivan was more than just any bartender. He was the lifeline who'd given her a job when she'd shown up in Manhattan after a bitter breakupbecause, after all, everyone knows that the brainiac thing to do after leaving all your worldly possessions in Florida with your old boyfriend is to move to stratospherically expensive New York with only a high school diploma and an encyclopedic knowledge of tropical bar drinks.
Not once had Gabe laughed at her, and for that, he earned her undying loyalty. Except that didn't mean she was moving in with him. On that she was standing firm. Firmish. Unfortunately she only had five days to find an apartment.
"You need a place to live," he continued, completely ignoring her denials. "I have an extra bedroom. It's the perfect solution."
"I'm looking for a place," answered one fake-blonde type with way too much eyeliner.
"Did you need a drink?" asked Tessa pointedly, absorbing the fake-blonde hate-vibes. The blonde would get over it, especially considering the way the suit behind her was eyeing her ass. Then Tessa turned her attention back to Gabe. "And don't you have a bar to cover? Look at poor Cain, he's in over his" Tessa checked out the back bar, noticed Sean had ditched his usual jacket and tie and was working alongside Cain. Just once she should be right in her life. Just once. Was that too much to ask?
Four thirsty Con Ed workers lined the bar, and she mixed up four mojitos, grinding the mint leaves with a little more force than necessary. Abject pity usually did that to her.
"I'm helping you out here for a bit," he explained, right as the waitress, Lindy, came up with a whole barful of drink orders, leaving no space for idle chatter.
"Meyer's," called Gabe.
"Heads up," answered Tessa, tossing the bottle in his direction. Gabe flipped the bottle behind his back, then poured the rum into the glass, and before you could silently mouth the word show-off, he had blended up a beautifully constructed mai tai.
Tessa, never one to be outblended, scowled and threw the shot glass in the air, sending it spinning four revolutions with an extra half twist for good measure. The Con Ed guys applauded with gusto. Tessa beamed pointedly at Gabe. Yes, she was capable. A miracle-working mixologist. A miracle-working mixologist who was about to be homeless.
Unless she agreed to Gabe's offer.
Sensing her momentary weakness, he leaned over her station and smiled in a manner guaranteed to break hearts and insure a fifty percent gratuity. "You need a place to live, Tessa. You can't live on the street."
Yeah, make her sound like a bag lady already. Tessa pushed bedraggled hair back from her face and met his eyes with dignity. Faked, but dignity nonetheless. Tessa was nothing if not proud.
"I could be some wet kitten or stray dog tossed out on the street by their heartless owner and you'd take me in. You're too soft. I know you, Gabriel O'Sullivan."
"You're not a stray dog."
"Thank you for that compliment."
"Come on, Tess. It makes sense."
She didn't need this conversation right now, but fine, if he wanted to explore the myriad reasons why she couldn't move in with him, she would list them off one by one. Starting with the obvious.
"You are a man."
He didn't roll his eyes, but he might as well have. "Yes." Gabe pushed it off so easily, as if his physical attributes were no big deal. But that was what made him so irresistible. Dark brown hair that had a tendency to curl into the nape of his neck, blue eyes that crinkled at the edges, not too tall, not too short, not too bulky, not too lean and a full mouth that was curved into a perpetual smile. He called himself average and compared to the potent animal magnetism of Sean, he wasbut damn if the women didn't throw themselves all over that simple charm. Oh, yeah, he knew exactly what he did to the female species.
Tessa gave him a skeptical look. "I am a woman."
He handed Lindy three cosmopolitans without even breaking a sweat. "There is that."
"We cannot live together in blissful, platonic harmony.
It's impossible." Tessa had lived with a colorful menagerie of roommates, all female. And maybe she could have considered a lesser male as a roommate but Gabe? No. That was just inviting trouble to come on in for a late-night drink.
Sean angled in front of her, fixing his place near a beautifully dressed brunette.
"I thought you were working," said Gabe.
"I was doing you a favor, but I got the phone number I wanted and now I'm no longer working. Now I'm just shooting the shit with my family and friends and listening to this fascinating conversation on the intricacies of the human libido. A male and a female living together is a huge mistake."
Gabe shook up a vodka martini. "With Tessa? I'm not worried."
Tessa coughed, the emotional equivalent of a furball stuck in her throat. "I don't know why I put up with this place."
Gabe flashed her an easy grin, and for one second the resemblance between Gabe and Sean was unmissable. Sean was broader, beefier, swore like a sailor, with a nose that had been broken in two bar fights since she'd known him, but somehow he was always impeccably dressed in a suit and tie.
"You put up with us because we like you and you're the fastest mojito maker on the Atlantic seaboard," said Gabe.
"Sean, tell her she should move in with me."
Sean rested his chin on his palm. "Why should I contribute to what will be the loss of our finest frozen drink maker and chief barback when Tony doesn't show? Do I look like a moron? Oh, no, Gabe. This is all about me. I like Tess. I want her to stay gainfully employed at this fine establishment so I can flirt with the female patrons while she works her little ass off, finely shaped as it is. She moves in with you, and you two will be all over each other. Groping, fondling " Sean illustrated with graphic hand movements. "I'd put good money on that one."
Tessa strategically avoided looking at Gabe. "I should sue you both. Male chauvinist perverts."
"Come on, Tess," Gabe insisted. "You know it's the perfect solution. We'll make it temporary."
"Temporarily forget about having sex then," added Sean.
"With Tessa Trueheart here as your roommate, you can kiss that goodbye. One more reason this is a bad idea."
Sean was only half-right, and Tessa corrected the attack on her character. "I would never interfere in my roommate's personal activities. Haileythe roommate before Janiceshe had three boyfriends and none of them knew about the others, except for me, of course. I hated it. All that lying and pretending." She stuck out her tongue. "Blah."
Sean's expression sharpened, transforming into full Law & Order mode. "So you come home and Gabe here is getting busy with some fine young thing on the sofa. What do you do?"
"What time is it?" asked Tessa, pouring a Jack neat for a Wall Street type with kind eyes.
"What does that matter?" asked Gabe.
"It's important. If it's still daylight, and under civilized society's strictures for productivityi.e. time for Tessa to hit the booksthen I don't care who's doing it in my living area. I'm going to study or else I'll never get my degree."
"You haven't lived with the number of roommates that I have.You have to have rules and order or you'll go crazy.You both are on your own. Someday soon I'm going to be on my own."
Tessa ended with a sigh, picturing herself walking up the mighty stone steps of her most prized apartment building, waving at Rodney the doorman before trudging into the old, quaint gated elevator that shuddered when it passed the third floor. After she made it safely upstairs, she'd open her door to solitary paradise, where she could crank up her Cher CD the one she hid from the worldand then she'd fall into a neatly covered periwinkle-blue chintz chair. A huge tabby cat would jump into her lap and curl up in the afternoon sun, purring like a vibratorthe one that she'd buy if she lived alone.
There were a lot of advantages to living life alone. Most people took it for granted. Tessa, who had always had someone breathing down her neckand finishing off the last of the milk, craved it the way some women craved pricey shoes. And at Hudson Towers, not only would she have the apartment she wanted but she could afford the rent on a one-bedroom all on her own. Well, not right at this exact moment but very, very soon. Her savings were piling up nicely, and once she finished her associate's degree in financeapproximately forty-six more credit hoursshe'd be good to go.
Gabe pulled out a bottle of Grey Goose and poured a shot. "Well, right now you need a roommate, and I think you should bunk with me until you find someone who isn't going to desert you again."
She shook her head. "Must you try and rescue every female you meet?"
"Yes, he must," answered Sean and then promptly stuck a celery stick into his mouth.
"At least think about it," Gabe said. "And if you're thinking about bunking in the storeroom until your find a place, think again, Tessa. It's against the law."
"In what state?"
"In my state. My bar. My state. My rules." Tessa shot a lime wedge in his direction, not that it mattered. The writing was pretty much on the wall. With five days left before she had to move, she really didn't have much choice.