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Breaking The Rules

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He couldn’t afford to get involved, not when he had a business to salvage.

He swished the glass a few more times over the scrub before dipping it into the tub of clear hot water, then added it to the rack to dry. The Stones CD on the jukebox faded into Carlos Santana’s sultry ode to a black magic woman, the momentary silence between CDs interrupted by hushed conversation and a sudden wail from the south end of the bar.

Cooper let out a sigh and shook his head, fighting the urge to stop what he was doing and head back down the bar toward the lush little number in white. That plaintive wail of hers was easily a barometer to her sorry emotional state, which no doubt included equal doses of regret and guilt now that a couple of stiff drinks had dulled the shock of her act of desperation.

Benny looked helplessly at his buddy Joe. “Don’t cry, Carly. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Carly muttered something Coop couldn’t quite make out, then she looked up at Benny. After a rather noisy sniffle, she dropped her forehead against the bar and sobbed louder.

Coop hid the wry grin on his lips when Benny’s jaw fell slack. “It’ll be okay,” Benny said, thumping the crying woman on the back in a rough attempt at sympathy.

“You gonna do something ’bout that, Coop?” Marty hitched his thumb in the blubbering bride’s direction. “She’s gonna chase off the customers, son, and you can’t afford that. If we wanted to hear a woman whine, we’d stay home.”

Considering his blue-collar clientele, Marty definitely had a point, Cooper thought. Fred and Lou were already loading their custom pool cues into their cases and preparing to leave.

“Why me?” Cooper muttered. He slapped a dry towel over his shoulder. “Of all the bars in Chicago, why this one?”

Marty chuckled. “Face it, Coop. When it comes to luck, if it wasn’t for bad, you wouldn’t have any.”

He very nearly agreed, except the pitiful state of The Wilde Side wasn’t of his making. No, that had been Hayden’s doing, or undoing, he thought grumpily. He’d known exactly what he was getting into when he’d promised his uncle he’d take care of the place—a lost cause. The neighborhood tavern had been around since the late fifties, and a few of the regulars never failed to remind him that the bar was as much a part of Chicago history as old Mrs. Leary’s cow. He could probably teach the teary bride a few things about guilt, he thought, because every time he considered closing down the bar, that’s exactly what he felt—a hefty dose of guilt about going back on a promise to his uncle.

Luck had nothing to do with the obstacles Coop faced. Poor planning and allowing a woman to cloud his uncle’s judgment did, however, and Coop had nothing to blame but his loyalty to Hayden for his current problems and the sorry state of his own finances. He couldn’t afford to dump another dime into the bar, but if things didn’t turn around soon, he’d have no choice but to close the doors for good. And a blubbering bride chasing off what customers he had left wasn’t helping matters.

He headed down the bar toward the odd threesome, stopping long enough to lower the volume on the jukebox. Benny and Joe were good guys, rough on the outside and always anxious for a little action, legal or otherwise. But anyone who took the time to get to know Benny West or Joe Lanford knew they were a couple of pussycats underneath the scruffy denim and chrome chains. What did surprise Cooper, though, was their matching soft spots for the curvy little damsel in distress. They made a habit of steering clear of the sweet and pure types, not that any frequented the bar, but one look at the teary bride and Cooper knew she’d easily reside at the top of the good-girl list.

Oh well, he thought, snagging a box of tissues from behind the bar. At least with Benny and Joe playing bodyguard, not many would be anxious to hassle the bride.

He slapped the box of tissues down in front of her. “Turn off the waterworks, Princess. You’re spooking my customers.”

She sniffed and lifted her short cap of platinum curls, casting those intriguing eyes filled with moisture his way. Something twisted behind his ribs at the despondency cloaked in her gaze. Certainly not his heart. He didn’t need this. Not now when he was a bank statement away from financial ruin. Hadn’t he learned anything from the mistakes of his uncle and his mother?

Obviously not, considering the way the buxom bride was making his heart slam into his ribs every time she shifted her turquoise eyes in his direction.

“I’m sor…sorry,” she said, a huge tear spilling from her spiked lashes. “I’m not supposed to cry in public.”

“Who said you can’t cry in public?” Joe asked, his gravelly voice filled with genuine sympathy as he gently patted her shoulder.

Another sniff followed a tug on a tissue from the box. She looked at Joe. “It’s a rule.”

“Who made up a dumb rule like that?” Benny asked, his puffy face filled with curiosity.

Carly shrugged, a barely perceptible lift of one satin-clad shoulder that drew Coop’s gaze like a magnet to a pair of very full breasts. “I don’t know,” she said, dabbing her eyes. “But there are thousands of them. And I’ve always adhered to them, until now.”

Coop crossed his arms over his chest and rocked back on his heels. “What do your rules say about a bride in a bar without her groom?”

Carly pulled in a deep breath.

Cooper winced and waited, wishing he’d kept to the opposite end of the bar.

She wailed again, burying her face in the already crumpled tissue.

“Aw, Coop. Now look what you did,” Benny chided him. He smacked Carly on the back with his beefy hand in another poor gesture of comfort.

“Ow,” she muttered between sobs.

“We just got her calmed down,” Joe said, shooting him a disgruntled glance. “Why’d you have to go and get her started up again?”

Coop gave them both a hard look. “Why don’t you two find out where she belongs and see about returning her?”

“She’s not a lost puppy,” Benny scolded. His pencil-thin eyebrows pinched together in a frown. “Some guy stood her up. On her wedding day.”

Carly shook her head, blond curls bouncing with the movement. “No, he didn’t.” She reached for another tissue. “I…I ran away,” she managed before issuing another ear-splitting wail.

Cooper rolled his eyes. He tried to tell himself he didn’t care. He didn’t care about her or why she’d left her groom at the altar. The firm reprimand didn’t change the fact that he was lying to himself, nor lessen the gnawing in his gut he could only describe as something a lot more interesting than curiosity.

Something he didn’t want or need. Dammit, he’d made a promise and he wasn’t about to let a voluptuous female, no matter how attractive, distract him. And Carly had diversion written all over her.

“Just keep it down,” he groused, then moved a couple of feet down the bar to serve another customer.

“I’m sure you had a very good reason for leaving like that,” Joe said, sliding her drink closer. “Here. Drink up, Carly. It’ll cure what ails ya.”

She dropped the bunched-up tissues on the bar and took the glass in both hands, downing the Scotch as if it was no stronger than a soft drink. Cooper didn’t want to be around when all that booze hit.

She hiccuped and waved her slender hand in the air. “Could I have another, please?”

“Anything you want, Carly,” Joe said, his gruff voice ridiculously saccharine. “You just tell Joe all about it, okay?”

“Aw, hell,” Cooper muttered to himself. If she wanted to get plastered, then that was her problem. What did he care if she’d have the devil to pay come morning when she woke up with a whopper of a hangover? It wasn’t as if he’d be holding her head while she bowed to the porcelain god.

He delivered another Scotch, adding more water than booze to her glass, then moved down the bar to take care of a few more customers before wandering back toward her and her mismatched caretakers.

Curiosity, he told himself. That’s the only reason he continued to take up residence at the south end of the bar. He was curious as to how she came to be in his tavern. It had nothing whatsoever to do with attraction, sexual or otherwise, even if he couldn’t seem to keep his gaze from straying to those lush curves.

She looked at him when he stopped in front of her, and his gut tightened.


Curiosity, he attempted to convince himself again. He was not reacting to those big turquoise eyes.

She braced her elbows on the bar and hung her head, her soft white-blond curls swaying forward, brushing her cheeks. Hunched slightly over the bar like a regular, she provided him with a perfect view of her ample cleavage. Damned if he could drag his eyes away to safer territory. If he wasn’t careful, he’d start drooling any minute.

Images filtered through his mind.

Erotic images.

Cooper frowned. He didn’t have time for this, no matter how tempting or alluring.

“I tried to tell him yesterday,” she said suddenly.
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