Following Dean’s directions, I turned onto Bragg Street, where the corner store’s sign read Omar’s General Store. I kept walking until I saw the neon blue sign, which read Isaac’s. The heavy wooden door to the bar opened and a man in a black T-shirt stepped out carrying garbage bags. His biceps bulged as he carried the heavy bags around the side of the buildings, making the ink snaking down his arms more noticeable. Thinking he was Isaac, I followed him a few steps before stopping at the entrance to the alley on the side of the building.
He carefully stepped around strewn garbage, broken liquor bottles, and puddles of murky water until he stopped at the garbage bins. I tightened my grip on my brand new buttery soft leather briefcase, holding my breath as best I could with the overwhelming stench of garbage and liquor, questioning whether I should just wait for him in the bar.
The man threw the large bags up and into the dumpster and when they landed with a thud, he brushed off his hands. He turned and walked back toward me. His lips tilted into a smirk as his gaze traveled from the tip of my head down my suit-clad body, my bare legs, to my red patent leather heels—my power shoes for days when I was out of my element.
I took in his blond hair trimmed close to his head, his chiseled jaw, almost-black eyes, and arched my brow at the challenge I saw in them, licking my suddenly dry lips. This man had never seen the inside of an office. He might have seen the inside of a courtroom though—most likely from the opposite side of the one where I stood.
Energy rolled off him in waves—like he knew I was judging him and he’d come up short. I gripped the strap of my briefcase tighter as the initial interest I’d seen in his eyes dimmed.
“What can I do for you?” He tilted his head. “You always approach strangers in alleys?”
“I’m not in the alley.” I glanced pointedly down at the sidewalk beneath my stilettos. “I saw you come out of Isaac’s and I’m supposed to meet with Isaac Kershaw at ten.” I wasn’t sure if he was Isaac or if he worked for him. “We can talk inside the bar if that would be better for you.” I knew I wasn’t explaining myself very well but everything about this man—his intensity, his presence, his demeanor—made me nervous.
He turned away from me, effectively dismissing me. “I don’t know anything about a meeting.”
His T-shirt stretched tight over his broad shoulders and tapered to a narrow waist, and the ripped jeans, which looked like they were worn from hard work, hung over black scuffed boots. Everything he wore was for function, not fashion. I shook my head to clear it.
“Mr.—” Ugh. I completely blanked on Isaac’s last name and I wasn’t sure this man was Isaac. “I’m Taylor Leeds, an Assistant U.S. Attorney.” I winced at the way my voice went up an octave with nerves.
When the words Assistant U.S. Attorney left my mouth, his eyes hardened.
“What did you say?” He turned to face me, his arms crossed over his chest, his feet wide, his body tense.
“I said my name is Taylor—
“Did you say you’re a U.S. Attorney?”
Clearly, he was not happy about my job title, but hadn’t he come to Dean with his concerns? My job shouldn’t be a surprise unless he wasn’t the owner. “An Assistant U.S. Attorney—a federal prosecutor.” I pulled my badge out of my briefcase, and he took one look before opening the door to the bar. I shook off the embarrassment and rushed to keep up with him, slipping behind him into the bar before the door shut.
He ducked behind the long bar and washed his hands in the sink before turning to find me. “I told you I don’t know anything about a meeting.”
This was my first assignment and I wasn’t going to allow this man’s bad attitude deter me. “Isaac reached out to my boss, Dean Bernthal, about your concerns about crime in your community—”
“My community? My concerns?” He braced his hands on the bar as he considered me.
I hadn’t expected to meet resistance with a business owner who’d approached my office and agreed to this meeting. “Yes, your needs in this community.”
He shook his head. “You think you’re here for some worthy cause, but you don’t know anything.”
The air in the bar was chilly with the air conditioner blasting but my body temperature was rising with each word.
“You’re not from here.” I couldn’t refute him—he was right. “You know nothing about this city, my community, or me.”
Every word out of his mouth was technically true. “I am new to town, but—”
“But nothing, princess. I don’t know if Isaac set up some meeting without telling me, but he’s not here. Tell your boss to send someone else next time—a local. You know, someone who understands the issues.”
“This is my job.” I gestured around at his bar and realized my mistake when his eyes narrowed on me. “When Dean told me about Isaac’s interest in revitalizing this community and reducing crime, I volunteered to take lead.” Even if Isaac wasn’t interested, I knew Dean wanted to help this community now that Isaac had brought it to his attention. The proximity to Harrison Avenue and tourism made the area ideal for revitalization.
“You’re the wrong person for the job.”
Since Isaac wasn’t here, the smart thing to do would be to go back to the office and discuss my next step with Dean, and maybe un-volunteer myself from this task. I turned to leave, and my eyes snagged on a Help Wanted sign for waitresses in the window. If I helped him out, maybe he would return the favor. At the very least I could get a feel for the bar, the clientele, and possibly learn what the issues were.
I was good with my autistic brother because I had years of hands-on experience. Getting to know the community was the same. I needed to immerse myself and get to know the business owners, residents, and customers.
Decision made, I walked closer to the bar. Wood stools butted up against a high counter where the man was stocking stemmed glasses on racks on the ceiling. His arms stretched overhead, lifting his shirt to reveal defined abs. I swallowed hard, forcing myself to raise my gaze to his face. “I see you’ve got a waitress wanted sign over there. Let’s make a deal.”
After stocking the last glass, his arms dropped down to his sides, and his eyes met mine. The eyes that had appeared black in the alley were now gray flecked with gold. His scent floated over me—liquor, leather, and man.
“I’ll work here in the evenings until you find someone else. Dean said the other business owners respect Isaac and his bar, so they’ll be more likely to talk to me if one of you introduces me first.” I wasn’t sure that would be the case, but I’d run into resistance from this man just by announcing my job title and I wanted to make progress in the neighborhood without running back to Dean for help.
He smirked at my suggestion. “You have yourself a deal.”
Wringing my fingers, I hadn’t expected him to agree so easily. What had I gotten myself into? “I’ve never waitressed before.”
“Of course not.” He sighed. “Have you ever worked a job that didn’t require a suit?”
I wondered if I should I tell him I lived with my parents and rushed home after school and my internship to help them with my severely autistic brother? Something told me he wouldn’t care. “No.”
“Be here at seven P.M.” He walked back to the stockroom, leaving me standing there alone.
I’d moved here to take a brief respite from my life. I loved my family, but when I was living at home, I didn’t go out with friends and I didn’t date. I spent all of my spare time with my brother. We had a unique bond. I’d sit with him and watch TV or read to him. My parents wanted me to go out more, but the reality was that Caleb was calmer when I was there. It made things easier, but at the same time, I needed to do something for myself and I could only do that if Caleb wasn’t nearby. I couldn’t drop everything and go to him if I was halfway across the country. I’d wanted independence, an adventure, and New Orleans—this job provided that.
Caleb was twenty-four and because of his size and needs he was already getting to be too much for my parents, so I’d decided to give myself a year or two at this job before I’d need to return home.
I opened the door and stepped back out into the humidity. I knew nothing about this life or this city, but I wanted to learn. I wanted to make a difference. If I had to work at his bar—if I had to work with that man—then I would. This job was important to me and I wanted to make a good impression so Dean could help me transfer within the Department of Justice back to Baltimore at some point to be near my family. It was only when I stepped onto the streetcar that I realized I’d never gotten the man at the bar’s name.
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