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Breaking The Rules

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She let out a sigh. Because twenty-four years of following rules told her a preacher’s daughter didn’t enter a bar without a male escort. Especially if the daughter in question was wearing a wedding gown!

With a lift of her chin and a determination to break her second rule in the same day, she scooped her little white satin bag from the passenger seat and climbed out of the car, thankfully without tripping over the voluminous yards of white satin.

She tugged hard on the train she hadn’t had time to detach before her abrupt departure from her own wedding, ten feet of satin spilling from the driver’s seat onto the asphalt. Not bothering with the elastic wrist-band, she bunched the fabric in her hand, slammed the door to her uncooperative Escort sedan, and walked resolutely toward the entrance below a green, flashing neon sign.

Blaring music and the stench of stale smoke and alcohol hit her when she slipped inside the bar. All she needed was a telephone to call a tow truck, and then she’d be on her way. Where, she hadn’t decided, but she planned to stay as far away from Homer, Illinois, as possible.

She stepped up to the archway leading into the bar. Her confidence wavered. She could do this. How else was she going to learn to take care of herself, and more importantly, do things her way, if she couldn’t even walk into a bar?

The song blasting from the jukebox at damaging decibel levels she recognized from an older MTV rock video. Flea. The lead singer’s name was Flea, and in the video, most of his body had been covered in tattoos. Who would name their child Flea? she wondered.

Someone who ignored rules, that’s who. Someone who grabbed life with both hands and shucked the restrictions of convention. Someone who didn’t do everything that was expected of her without question. Someone who probably wouldn’t feel half as awful as she did for running out on her own wedding.

A wooden sign above a long mirror covering the wall behind a mahogany bar caught her attention. For the first time in days, a genuine grin tugged her lips as she read the sign: Take a walk on The Wilde Side.

She couldn’t think of anything more appropriate for a woman intent on breaking the rules.

THE WILDE SIDE was the last place Cooper Wilde expected to find a fairy princess, but damned if one hadn’t just walked through the doors. A platinum blond fairy princess with a chickie-boom body and big, round turquoise eyes filled with apprehension. That intriguing gaze darted around the smoky bar before landing on him, sending awareness rumbling through him in Richter-scale-worthy shock waves.

She stood a little straighter and headed right for him as the Red Hot Chili Peppers segued into a classic rock standard by the Hollies. There was nothing long and cool about the hot little number dressed in bridal satin and lace, and Coop seriously doubted she’d ever stepped foot in a bar. Hell, he had suspicions about her even being of the legal age. He had enough trouble without getting busted with a minor in the bar.

She lifted her chin and ignored the stares of his few customers, a blue-collar crowd for the most part, their glances ranging from mild curiosity to a few outright leers that leapt straight across the border toward rude. She tightened her grip on a little satin bag clutched in her delicate fingers and stepped up to the long mahogany bar.

Coop crossed his arms and looked down at her, into those big eyes banked with a determination that filled him with dread. He had enough to worry about in what was becoming a vain attempt to keep the bar operational without having to deal with a jilted bride who didn’t have the foresight to change clothes before traipsing around Chicago. His customers were mostly long-timers, harmless older guys he’d known practically his entire life, but there were a few rougher types who wouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of a pretty little lady with busted dreams and a broken heart. As far as he was concerned, a lone woman in a wedding gown pretty much qualified under both categories.

The best thing he could do for The Wilde Side, and himself, was to send her back to fairyland as soon as possible. He didn’t need to scan the pitifully thin crowd to know she was attracting a whole lot of attention. Attention that could get her into trouble.

“What can I do for you, Princess?”

“Do you have a pay phone?” she asked in a voice loud enough to be heard over the jukebox.

“In the back,” he answered with a quick jerk of his head.

“Thank you,” she answered primly.

He braced his hands on the bar and leaned forward. “And you’re in the wrong place, Princess. St. Mike’s is a few blocks south of here.” He pushed off the bar and strolled away, hoping she’d take the hint and leave.

“I’m looking for a telephone, not a church,” she called after him.

He shrugged and opened the cooler for a fresh bottle of beer for Marty Davis, a welder who was his uncle’s closest friend, and by extension, another surrogate father to Cooper. Hayden Wilde and Marty had been the ones to convince him eleven years ago, via ultimatum, to join the navy and see the world. He’d been a rebel of the first degree and intent on living up to his name. As much as he hadn’t wanted to take their advice, the service had held a hell of a lot more appeal than jail, which was where he’d been heading fast.

He’d surprised not only himself, but his uncle as well, when he’d gone into SEAL training. The special forces team had intrigued him, and earning the nickname Wildman hadn’t been too much of a stretch. He’d figured he’d do his four-year stint, but when the end of his term drew to a close, he’d gone to see the retention officer and reenlisted for another six years. He’d been about to re-up for another six when the chaplain had come to see him, telling him his uncle needed him to come home. Taking into consideration the heart attack Hayden had suffered the previous spring, Coop decided to come back to Chicago to take care of the man who’d raised him after his mother died.

What he found was not only Hayden in perfect health, but he’d let his life’s work fall practically to ruin. And not because of any illness, as Coop had been led to believe. No, Hayden Wilde had been suffering from another unfortunate condition, one caused by faulty genetics. His obsession with the opposite sex had cost him more than his pride this time, it had almost cost him his business.

“And I want a drink,” the princess yelled over the music in a voice filled with steely determination.

That got his attention and snapped him right back into the present. Coop set the beer in front of Marty, who didn’t bother to hide his amusement, and moved back down the length of the bar toward her. “Not without some ID, Princess. I could lose my license for even allowing you in here.”

She gave him a smug look and opened her little satin bag. “As you can see,” she said, handing over her driver’s license, “I’m well over the legal drinking age.”

He took the ID from her. “Barely,” he muttered, counting backward as he examined the small plastic card, alternately comparing the police lineup quality photo to the real thing. The real thing was much more interesting. Too bad he didn’t have time for interesting, because Carly Cassidy was sassy and curvy. Throw in willing, and she’d be just the way he liked them, even if she was only three years above the legal drinking age.

Since he wasn’t breaking the law by serving her, he handed the license back. “One drink, then you leave. I don’t need your kind of trouble, Princess. What’ll it be?”

Carly hadn’t a clue. The only alcohol ever to pass her lips had been the sacramental kind. For her first drink, she wanted something interesting. One of those exotic kind the starlets in Hollywood sat around their swimming pools sipping, with colorful paper umbrellas and sweet tropical fruit perched on the side of the glass.

“We don’t do frilly and frothy,” the sexy bartender said, practically reading her mind. He braced his hands on lean hips encased in soft, faded denim. “My customers like it hard and they like it fast.”

She looked up at him, frowning when an odd tingling started to uncurl in her tummy. Hunger, she decided. Those strange tingles had nothing to do with the way the bartender’s white T-shirt with an alcoholic beverage logo splashed across the front clung to the broadest shoulders and widest chest she’d ever had the privilege of viewing. Most assuredly hunger, she reminded herself, and not caused by the way his dark chocolate eyes swept over her or the way his mouth tipped up into a breathtaking grin that belied his surly attitude. She’d been so nervous she hadn’t been able to eat breakfast, that’s all. The huge feast at the wedding reception…well, she had missed that. Yes, she decided firmly. Most definitely hunger.

“Scotch,” she finally blurted, wondering if she’d even like whiskey. Anything was better than another round of guilt. “On the rocks.”

One of his rich sable eyebrows lifted. “One finger or two?”

Fingers? Was that bar slang for ice cubes?

She shrugged. “Two should be sufficient.”

The gorgeous hunk of a bartender gave her a skeptical look, then moved down the bar to fix her drink.

Keeping her satin bag clutched firmly in her hand, she headed toward the rear of the tavern, passing between a pair of pool tables and a couple of rough-and-tumble-looking men with cue sticks in one hand and amber bottles of beer in the other. They looked at her curiously, and she couldn’t exactly blame them. Odds were that not many women actually frequented The Wilde Side dressed in a wedding gown.

Nestled at the end of a short hallway next to the ladies’ room, she found the pay phone with a tattered copy of the phone book attached to the wall by a metal cord. She made her call for the tow truck only to learn she’d be waiting for a minimum of two hours. It was, after all, Saturday night.

She hung up, deciding to wait for the tow truck driver to arrive before she called a taxi. She took a step to turn and ran smack into a brick wall of leather, denim and chains.

She looked up, tipping her head far back to stare into one of the most homely faces she’d ever had the misfortune of viewing. Biker Boy’s eyes were beady and wide set, and focused on some point south of her face. His nose was crooked, obviously it’d been broken—more than once.

He grinned, revealing a missing front tooth. “’Scuse me, miss, but my buddy and me was wondering if them were real?”

Carly’s jaw fell slack. Where she came from, strange men did not approach women and ask if their…if their breasts were real!

She snapped her mouth closed. She wasn’t in Homer. No one here expected her to murmur a polite “excuse me” then quietly step around the gentleman, pretending he hadn’t just insulted her. If she followed the rules as she’d done all her life, that’s exactly what she would do in the face of such an impropriety.

Who was she kidding? If she’d followed the rules the way she was supposed to, she wouldn’t even be having this conversation. She’d be spending her wedding night at the Village Inn in her hometown before setting off tomorrow for the Florida Keys with her groom.

Rules. She hated them, but worse, despised herself for simply following along like a good little girl. Rules had nearly ruined her life. They’d almost seen her married to a man she didn’t love and who didn’t love her. Because of them, she’d accepted a position as a music teacher at her hometown high school, when that was the last thing she wanted to do for the rest of her life.

Well, Carly Cassidy was finished following rules!

“Actually,” she said, flashing Biker Boy a blithe grin, “it’s this damn corset I’m wearing. Ridiculous contraption, don’t you think?”

Biker Boy’s beady eyes rounded, making him look almost cross-eyed. His crooked nose turned bright pink, the color slowly spreading over his wide, puffy cheeks.

He cleared his throat. “I meant your eyes, miss. They’re a real nice turquoise color, and Joe thought they was them colored contacts some women like.”

“Oh.” Heat spread over her own cheeks. “I’m so sorry. I thought…I thought you meant…Oh sweet Mary, she felt like a fool. Even if she was through following everyone else’s rules, rudeness was quite unacceptable. She felt just awful for embarrassing him. Although she had to admit, Biker Boy and blushing weren’t exactly synonymous.
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