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Breaking The Rules

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“Who?” Joe asked, tipping back his beer.

“Dean,” she said, trailing her finger over the rim of her glass. “I tried to tell him when we went to meet my sisters at the country club to finish the decorations for the reception. I tried to tell him and he just wouldn’t listen to me.”

Benny shrugged. “Hey, at least you tried,” he added sympathetically.

“There are over three hundred family and friends eating chicken Kiev right now. Baked potatoes with little pats of butter molded into perfect squares with my and Dean’s initials on them. They were supposed to be celebrating the beginning of our life together.”

She reached for the glass and tossed the contents back like a shot. “He just wouldn’t listen,” she said again. “He kept insisting it was only prewedding jitters.”

Considering she was on her third drink, she hadn’t slurred a single word despite Coop’s doubts about her being an experienced drinker. Her skin looked too soft and smooth, having none of the telltale signs of someone who frequented the bottom of a bottle. His fingers itched to touch her, to see for himself if her skin was as silky as it looked.

He made a fist and turned away, moving down the bar to serve a couple of men he didn’t recognize. They’d come into The Wilde Side looking for a little relaxation, or a little action. From the sly glances they cast in Carly’s direction, Cooper had a bad feeling action would be on the menu for the night, unless he found a way to get rid of her.

For the next hour, he served customers, refilled drinks and made polite conversation. A few of the guys asked him about the lone bride, but for the most part, other than an occasional off-color joke, now that she’d finally quieted, no one paid her much attention.

During a brief lull, and against his better judgment, he found an excuse to wander down to her end of the bar again.

Benny polished off his beer and requested another. “I almost got married once,” Cooper heard him tell Carly.

Her head snapped around and she blinked a few times. “You did?”

Cooper slid a fresh beer in front of Benny, hiding his grin at her reaction. When a guy was as butt-ugly as Benny West, chasing women didn’t exactly mean he’d catch them.

“Sure did,” Benny said, a hint of melancholy in his voice. “But I didn’t like the thought of being tied down to one woman.”

Carly blinked several times, but Cooper had to give her credit when she kept a straight face. Either she was already ripped or one of the most tenderhearted creatures he’d ever met.

“Did your limbs quake?” she asked.

“Naw,” Benny said, flashing her that gap-toothed grin. “But I puked once.”

Carly’s jaw dropped. “Really?”

Cooper cleared his throat to keep from laughing, then grabbed a damp rag to start wiping down the bar.

At Benny’s nod, she turned her attention to Joe. “Are you married?”

Joe set his beer aside. “Not me. No way.”

She tilted her head to the side, those bouncy curls brushing her cheek. “I don’t think marriage is all bad,” she said after a moment. “Not really. I’ve got six older sisters, and they’re all happily married. Well, not Jill,” she said, as if they knew to whom she was referring. “But that’ll probably change soon.”

“Maybe you weren’t ready to get married,” Cooper reasoned, wanting to bite his tongue off for getting involved. Would he ever learn?

Carly flashed her intriguing gaze his way. “Probably not,” she said quietly. A frown tugged her brows together. “But how do you know when you’re ready?”

Cooper didn’t answer, because he didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t shatter those little-girl illusions she no doubt harbored. When it came to marriage, role models had been in short supply for him. From the few guys he’d known in the navy who’d walked down the aisle, he’d learned that marriage and the navy didn’t mix. As a SEAL, he hadn’t spent much time in one place and had wisely chosen not to tie himself down. Even with the lack of role models in his life, he knew wedded bliss wouldn’t be a reality unless he came home more than a couple of days every month or two.

When he didn’t provide a response, Carly looked to Benny and Joe for insight. Both men remained silent, contemplating their beers. “That’s what I thought,” she said after a few moments.

Benny turned and gave her a wide grin. “You know what you need?”

Carly let out a hefty sigh, crossed her arms on the bar and rested her cheek on her satin-covered forearms. “Sure. A job, a place to live and some serious direction in my life.”

Benny shook his head. “Uh-uh. You need to have some fun and just forget about everything else for a while.”

“Great idea,” Joe added.

She lifted her head to look at Benny. “How long is a while?”

Benny shrugged. “I dunno. Tonight. A week. A month.”

Joe slapped his hand on the bar. “How about a year?”

She straightened, her eyes filling with interest. Dangerous interest, in Cooper’s opinion.

“You’re suggesting I just run away from my problems?”

Cooper scooped her empty glass off the bar. “Isn’t that why you’re here?” he asked.

She turned her head, her gaze colliding with his. “That wasn’t very nice.”

He shrugged. “I just call ’em as I see ’em, Princess.”

Her chin lifted a notch and a defiant light sparked in her gaze, highlighting her irises with tiny flecks of gold. Why that made his gut tighten even more, he couldn’t be sure, but he sure as hell liked the way she looked at him. She might be an emotional wreck, but he suspected there was too much fire and spunk behind the teary-eyed bride routine for her bout of alcohol-enriched depression to last for very long.

And damn if he didn’t like fire and spunk.

A lot.

She made a noise that bordered on a snort, then turned her attention back to her bodyguards. That chin of hers inched upward another defiant notch, too. “What kind of fun?” she asked, determination lacing her sweet voice.

The big guy shrugged. “Wanna shoot some pool?”

She glanced over her shoulder to the pool tables. “I don’t know how to play.”

“It’s okay,” Joe said, standing. “We’ll teach you.”

She shrugged and slid off the bar stool. “Okay. But only until the tow truck driver shows up. Then I have to leave.”

And go where? Cooper almost asked, but stopped himself in time. He didn’t care. He didn’t want to care, but there was something about her that spiked his interest, regardless of what a distraction like her could cost him.

“Let’s make it interesting,” Joe suggested, leading her away from the bar. “Let’s play for drinks. Winner buys.”

Lyrical laughter drifted to Cooper as he kept a watchful eye on the bride while pulling a beer from the cooler. For the next hour or two, other than an occasional glance in her direction, he didn’t have time to worry about Carly. She was safe with Benny and Joe. It was Saturday night, and thankfully the bar was somewhat busy for a change. With his waitress off because of a sick kid, he was on his own, and he didn’t have time to baby-sit a hot number in white, even if his gaze kept straying toward her more times than he cared to admit.

By midnight, the bride had disappeared without a word, and he tried to tell himself what he felt wasn’t even remotely close to disappointment, but gratitude. The last thing he needed was to get tangled up with a woman when he had more important things to worry about. Like finding a way to hang on to The Wilde Side until his uncle came to his senses again.

By the time he ushered the last customer from the bar, Coop was beat. He emptied the till and started cleaning up rather than putting it off until the next day. Sunday was the only day of the week the bar opened later in the afternoon, and he looked forward to a few extra hours to himself.
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