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Rachel Harper had always longed to be more sophisticated. It was right there on her to-do list between "be more aware of current events" and "don't let your hand-washing pile up so much."
While she had started watching the national news nearly every night, she wasn't doing so well keeping up with her delicates. And the sophistication thing? A total loss.
Which was why she found herself, at the ripe old age of twenty-five, sitting in a bar and feeling as if she didn't have a clue as to how to act. Not that she was here to do normal barlike things. Instead, she'd agreed to accompany Diane, a new teacher at her school, who was breaking up with her boyfriend and had asked Rachel to come along for moral support. As the next item of Rachel's to-do list—right under the issue with the hand-washing—was "get out more," she'd agreed to tag along to the Blue Dog Bar.
Rachel wasn't sure what dog, blue or not, had inspired the name. There seemed to be a lot more men than women in the bar. She swirled the margarita she'd ordered, then took a big sip.
"The jerk isn't even going to show up," Diane said from her seat across the small table they'd chosen by the wall. "That is so like him. I swear, I'm going to kick him in the head when I see him." Diane paused, then smiled.
"See, I'm talking in 'I'sentences, just like that book said."
"Yes, you are," Rachel murmured, deciding not to point out that the "I" sentences the self-help manual referred to probably didn't fall into the "I'm going to kick you in the head" category.
"There he is," Diane said as she stood. "Wish me luck." Rachel glanced at the tall, dark-haired man who strolled into the bar, looking as if he could take just about every other guy there. "Good luck," she said and meant it.
Carter Brockett eyed the curvy brunette in the prim dress and knew he was seconds away from all kinds of trouble. The cool, logical side of his brain reminded him that all the pain and suffering in his life could be traced back to one source: women. Life was always better when he walked away.
The part of his brain—and the rest of him—that enjoyed a warm body, a sharp mind and a purely feminine take on the world said she looked interesting. And that last bit of consciousness, shaped by a very strong-willed mother who had drilled into him that he was always to protect those weaker than him, told him that the attractive brunette was in way over her head.
He could be wrong of course. For all he knew, she was a leather-wearing dominatrix who came to the Blue Dog because of the place's reputation. But he had his doubts.
The Blue Dog was a cop bar. But not just any hangout for those in uniform. It was a place where guys showed up to get lucky and the women who walked in counted on that fact. Carter usually avoided the place—he worked undercover and couldn't afford to be seen here. But one of his contacts had insisted on the location, so Carter had agreed and prayed no one from the force would speak to him.
No one had. He'd concluded his business and had been about to leave when the brunette had walked in with her friend, who was currently involved in a heated conversation with Eddy. Eddy wasn't exactly a prince when it came to his dating habits, so Carter had a feeling the chat wasn't going to go well. He nodded at Jenny, the bartender on duty, then pointed to the brunette. Jenny raised her eyebrows.
Carter didn't have to guess what she was thinking. Jenny, an ex-girlfriend, knew him pretty well. Yeah, well, maybe after a few months of self-induced celibacy, he was ready to give the man-woman thing another try. Even though he knew better. Even though it was always a disaster.
He glanced around and saw he wasn't the only one who'd noticed the contrast between the brunette's made-for-sin body and her Sunday-school-teacher clothes. So if he was going to protect her from the other big bad cops, he'd better get a move on.
He walked to the bar, where Jenny handed him a beer and a margarita. He ignored her knowing grin and crossed to the brunette's table.
"Hi. I'm Carter. Mind if I join you?"
As he asked the question, he set down the margarita and gave her his best smile.
Yeah, yeah, a cheap trick, he thought, remembering all the hours he'd spent perfecting it back in high school. He'd taught himself to smile with just the right amount of interest, charm and bashfulness. It never failed.
Not even tonight, when the woman looked up, flushed, half rose, then sat back down, and in the process knocked over her nearly empty drink and scattered the slushy contents across the table and down the front of her dress.
"Oh, no," she said, her voice soft and almost musical.
"Darn. I can't believe I..." She pressed her lips together, then looked at him.
He'd already sopped up the mess on the table with a couple of napkins. He completely ignored the dampness on her dress. Sure, he was interested, but he wasn't stupid.
"You okay?" he asked, curious about a woman who actually said darn.
"Yes. Thank you."
He passed over the drink he'd brought.
She glanced first at it, then at him. "I'm, ah, with someone."
He kept his gaze on her. "Your girlfriend. I saw you come in together."
She nodded. "She's breaking up with her boyfriend and wanted moral support. I don't usually... This isn't..." She sighed. "She'll be back soon."
"No problem," he said easily. "I'll keep you company until she's finished."
Even in the dim light of the bar, he could see her eyes were green. Her long, dark hair hung in sensuous waves to just past her shoulders.
Carter held in a snort. Sensuous waves? He'd sure been without for a little too long if he were thinking things like that.
She shifted uncomfortably and didn't touch the drink.
"Is it me or the bar?" he asked.
"What? Oh, both, I suppose." Instantly, she covered her mouth, then dropped her hand to her damp lap.
"Sorry. I shouldn't have said that."
"It's fine. I'm a great believer in the truth. So which is more scary?"
She glanced around the Blue Dog, then returned her attention to him. "Mostly you."
He grinned. "I'm flattered."
"Why? You want me to think you're scary?"
He leaned forward and lowered his voice just enough to get her to sway toward him. "Not scary. Dangerous. All guys want to be dangerous. Women love that."
She surprised him by laughing. "Okay, Carter, I can see you're a pro and I'm way out of my league with you. I cheerfully confess I'm not the bar type and being in this setting makes me horribly uncomfortable." She glanced at her friend. "I can't tell if the fight's going well or badly. What do you think?"
He looked at Eddy, who'd backed the blonde into a corner. "It depends on how you're defining 'well." I don't think they're actually breaking up. Do you?"
"I'm not sure. Diane was determined to tell him what she thought, once and for all. In 'I' sentences."
He frowned. "In what?"
She smiled. "I think you're not treating me with respect. I think you're always late on purpose. That kind of thing. Although she did say something about wanting to kick him in the head, which is unlikely to help. Of course, I don't know Eddy. He may like that sort of thing."
Carter was totally and completely charmed. "Who are you?" he asked.
"My name is Rachel."
"You don't swear, you don't hang out in bars, so what do you do?"
"How do you know I don't swear?" she asked.
"You said 'darn' when you spilled your drink."
"Oh. Right. It's a habit. I teach kindergarten. There's no way I can swear in front of the children, not that I ever used a lot of bad words, so I trained myself to never say them. It's just easier. So I use words like 'darn' and 'golly." She grinned. "Sometimes people look at me like I'm at the dull-normal end of the IQ scale, but I can live with that. It's for the greater good. So who are you?"
A complicated question, Carter thought, knowing he couldn't tell her the truth. "Just a guy."
"Uh-huh." She eyed his earring—a diamond stud—and his too-long hair. "More than just a guy.What do you do?"
That changed with the assignment, he thought. "I'm working for a chopper shop. Motorcycles," he added.
She straightened her spine and squared her shoulders. "I know what a chopper is. I'm not some innocent fresh out of the backwoods."
Her indignation made him want to chuckle. She reminded him of a kitten facing down a very large and powerful dog. All the arched back and hissing fury didn't make the kitten any bigger.
"Not a lot of backwoods around here," he said easily.
"Desert, though. You could be an innocent fresh out of the desert."
Her lips twitched, as if she were trying not to smile. He pushed her margarita toward her.
"You're letting all the ice melt," he told her.
She hesitated, then took a sip. "Are you from around here?" she asked.
"Born and raised. All my family's here."
Now it was his turn to pause. He didn't usually give out personal information. In his line of work, it could get him into trouble. But he had a feeling Rachel wasn't going to be a threat to much more than his oath of celibacy.
"Three sisters, a mom. Their main purpose in life is to make me crazy." He made the statement with equal parts love and exasperation.
Rachel looked wistful. "That's nice. Not the crazy part, but that you're close."
"You're not close to your family?"
"I don't have any."
He didn't know what to say to that and reminded himself too late that he was supposed to be charming her, not reminding her that she was alone in the world.
"Are you from around here?" he asked.
"Riverside?" She shook her head. Her hair swayed and caught the light and, for the moment, totally mesmerized him. "I moved here after I graduated from college. I wanted a nice, quiet, suburban sort of place." She sighed. "Not very exciting."
"Hey, I've lived here all my life. I can show you the best spots for viewing the submarine races."
She grinned. "Where I grew up, we went parking over by the river. Well, not really a river. More of a gully. Part of the year, it even had water in it."
She shrugged. "I had my moments."