A Wildly Seductive Night(4)

By: Lauren Blakely



Then, she spat it out in a rather unglamorous spit bucket on the counter at her bar.

Not because it was bad.

Quite the opposite.

With a sweet and spicy flavor, the daring concoction tap-danced on her tongue like a celebration. This drink pushed the boundaries, and that was what she always looked for in a delicious cocktail as a judge on The Best New Bartender in New York, a reality TV show that had risen in the popularity ranks over the last few years.

As a regular judge, her job was to sample the drinks, but she certainly couldn’t consume them. If she did, she’d be tipsy all day long.

On the first season, one of the baby-faced newbie contestants had asked the judges how they managed to hold all that liquor. Her crusty old friend Byron, who served as a co-producer, had quipped, “I’m a well-seasoned alcoholic,” while Julia had simply told it like it was: “This is the rare case when I spit rather than swallow.”

That line had made it into the episode and had become a favorite with viewers, but also a classic running joke with her sex-on-a-stick husband. With Clay, of course she swallowed. He tasted better than even the best cocktail.

That was another one of their insider jokes. He was her favorite cock-tale.

No one would see her spitting out the drink once the show was edited. Neither the producers, nor viewers, nor the mixologists vying for top prize wanted to see a judge appear not to like a drink. It was best to maintain the illusion.

But it was no illusion when Julia tapped the side of the glass with her cranberry red nail and delivered the verdict to the hot young bartender dressed in all black.

His name was JT, and he was empirically hot. Not so hot that she wanted to bang him, because she only wanted to bang one man. But JT, with his perennial stubble, lopsided grin, and chocolate brown eyes, was going to be a star.

He had the looks, he had the talent, and he also had the ego. A big, fat ego as wide and high as a Times Square billboard. Too bad he was the leading contender on the show this season, filmed in Speakeasy, the bar Julia co-owned in Manhattan.

But though she wasn’t wild about his personality, she had to judge fairly, and he was a genius at mixing. “You, sir, are a mad scientist of cocktailian proportions. This Gin Fiesta is indeed a fiesta, and I do believe the proper term to describe it is heaven in a glass,” she declared.

JT pumped his fist. “Rocked it!”

Julia held in the urge to roll her eyes. “You certainly did.”

The man then clapped for himself. “I’ve always dreamed of making the best cocktail in New York.”

Byron cleared his throat, scrubbed a hand across his silvery beard, and cut in. “Now, settle down, soldier. I don’t think our Julia said your drink was the best in the whole city,” he pointed out.

This was Byron’s role on the show. He was the instigator. The prickly one. The man who poked and prodded. Each of the three judges—Julia, Byron, and Crazy Lucy—had their roles, and Julia, as the owner of the bar where the show was shot, played the fun and friendly judge.

That was what she preferred anyway, even with cocky bastards like JT. She liked to encourage the young bartenders to be the best they could be.

Until JT said the next thing.

“I’d like to see who can beat this drink.” JT’s tone surged with brazenness as he gestured at his creation. “Maybe we can have a little friendly competition and see if Miss Purple Snow Globe thinks she has another one in her?”

“Whoa!” Crazy Lucy said, holding up her hands.

Julia’s brows rose. The nerve of the little bastard. Sure, she understood the cameras were rolling and they were making entertainment. But challenging a judge had never been part of the plan.

“You’re a bold one, aren’t you?” she countered, hoping to deflect.

Crazy Lucy, a tattooed bartender from Tribeca who worked the sexy hipster vibe, turned to her at the bar. Crazy Lucy was the wild-card judge. You never knew what she’d do. “You can do it, Julia. You can take anyone on.”

JT pointed to his chest. “But can she take me on? Can she take on the Gin Fiesta? I wouldn’t bet on it,” he drawled.

Bet.

That word was like a thrown gauntlet.

It pissed her off, but it also sparked all her competitive instincts. Julia Nichols, a former card shark who’d gambled her way out of debt from a mobster and then had packed her bags and flown to New York City to join the love of her life, was not a woman who backed down from a challenge or a bet.

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