FOR THE PAST three and a half years I’ve referred to her as Fiona’s bitchy, stuck-up friend from New York City. I don’t even think I ever spoke of her by name.
Crazy enough, there are a million words swirling in my mind right now, but not a single one of them are any of those adjectives.
In fact, quite frankly, they seem rather ill-fitting to describe her at the present time.
And it’s all because Tess Winters is standing beside me with a huge smile on her face. I honestly don’t recall ever noticing how intoxicating her smile can be. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she looks hotter than fuck.
She’s wearing tight jeans and a loose sweater. She’s relaxed. Casual. Dare I say, bordering on fun. With her shoulder-length hair down, a knit cap on her head, and pure excitement in her brown eyes, she’s practically gleaming as she takes in the large rental space.
I’m so fucking attracted to this side of her that I have to fight the urge to want to touch her—to press my palm to the small of her back, or brush my hand against hers, if only to watch the way her face flushes when I do. The blush is something she’d vehemently deny I’m sure, but it’s there every time.
Every. Single. Time.
Since it’s Saturday, Max doesn’t have preschool. The original plan was for Tess to watch Max for the first half of the day and I’d take over around three. However, after my run I decided to blow off my late morning basketball game and take Tess to see the piece of property I told her about last night. I’ve been holding it for quite some time because the large square footage demands a steeper rent. Rent aside, my gut instinct tells me it just might be what Tess is looking for.
On the way to Printer’s Row, I stopped at a park to let Max run around. With the amount of snow that has accumulated, the three of us were able to build a snowman. And a pretty good one at that. We also exchanged a snowball or two. I let Tess get a few my way. And yes, I did so because it made her smile.
“Uncle Nick. Uncle Nick. Uncle Nick.” I glance down. Max is in his stroller, and eating some blueberries from a cup. He’s pointing outside to the heavy falling snow.
Laughing, I rub his head. “Don’t worry champ, we’ll be outside again in a few minutes to see who can eat the most snowflakes.”
Max giggles and so does Tess.
Unable to stop myself, I tease her with a slight bump to her shoulder. “You need to join in this time.”
She shakes her head. “No way.”
“Why? Are you too afraid you will look ridiculous?” I ask, and then open the door to the back room.
She steps in the large room and pivots around. “No, not at all. It looks fun. I’m just afraid my tongue will get frostbite.”
My own tongue sneaks out to lick my lower lip, and then I talk before thinking. “If that happens, I know the perfect way to warm it up.”
Tess gives me a curious look. “Are you flirting with me?”
Her directness puts me off balance, and my entire cool factor seems to fade away.
What the hell?
I have moves.
I know how to seduce women.
And yet every time I try with this girl she makes me feel weak in the knees. I have no idea why. All I know is I am done making a fool out of myself just to turn the situation around in my favor. This time, I’ll be grown up about it. Saving face, I give her a look that says, “Don’t be ridiculous,” and then counter with, “I’m referring to drinking a cup of hot chocolate. My mind isn’t always in the gutter.”
“Right,” she responds, and I swear she looks disappointed.
Moving past my ill-attempted obvious come on, I point to the far wall. “You could put a stove and an oven over there, a freezer too, and still have space for storage shelves.”
She nods. “I was thinking the same thing.”
I continue to layout the space; telling her where the electrical is and what could go where with the least amount of cost.
Just as I finish, she redirects her attention toward the front, as if there is a magnet pulling her in that direction. “The windows are just so amazing.”
“Yeah, I agree. The entire storefront is glass, and perfect for a cafe.”
The temperature in here is cold and Tess blows on her fingers. “I love that the people walking by will be able to see everything going on inside.”
“It’s definitely a plus.”
She’s practically bubbling with excitement. “The place has that old-fashioned feel to it. I’d love to be able to keep the charm of it. Who knows, maybe even someday find one of those antique cash registers.”
“I think that’s a great idea.”
Tess reaches for her coat that I tossed with mine on an old rickety chair when we first entered the old space and takes her gloves from the pocket. “Just to be clear,” she says, “the monthly lease amount you mentioned earlier is for this entire space?”
I give her a nod. “It is. Nothing has changed.”
Sure, I might have chopped the rent a bit after she told me what happened with that prick, Mathias, but I had to get her away from him. That man has a bad reputation. I’ve met him a few times and truth be told, I can’t stand him. Everyone knows he’s connected, so crossing him isn’t suggested. He’s a shrewd businessman, a despicable guy, that’s for sure, but his attitude when it comes to women is all about screwing them, in every sense of the word. And that isn’t something I’d want anyone to be subject to.
“And the rent is fair?”
I nod, wondering if she’s trying to chew me down.
“It seems way too low. I don’t want any favors.”
Okay, so getting me to lower the rent wasn’t what she wanted. She’s actually questioning if it’s too low. Who does that? “Yes, it’s fair,” I answer. That isn’t exactly true, but I know if I tell her the going rate, she’ll walk and end up with Bigelow.
It’s for her own good.
Slipping on her left glove, she pauses before putting on the other. “And no strings?”
Biting back a grin at her determination for independence, I shake my head. “No strings. The place is yours to do with what you want.”
Tess squares her shoulders with pride.
“But,” I add, “just to be clear, I can be a very helpful resource.”
Instead of laughing, her lips part and the pink hint of her tongue appears when she delicately touches her top lip with it. “I bet you can.”
Shoving the flirtation aside, I hope to make my point clear. “I’m serious, Tess. I know some of the best contractors in town. They won’t rip you off or run away with your money.”
She eyes me with suspicion. “And I won’t owe you anything?”
It’s abundantly obvious she’s been burned, and most likely by that Frenchman of hers. “No, you won’t owe me anything.”
“Okay,” she says.
“Okay,” I grin.
With a bite of her lip, she extends her right arm. “I’ll take it.”
I take her proffered hand in mine and slowly shake it. The entire time my eyes are watching as the color of her cheeks flushes.
Yeah, I did that on purpose.
Quickly, she draws her hand back and covers it with her glove. “Thanks to you it looks like I won’t have to get in bed with the devil.”
There is so much in that statement I’d like to dissect.
The most hopeful line of thinking being . . . does she mean she’ll get in bed with me instead?
Hey, I might have saved the day, but I never said I was a knight in shining armor.