TWENTY YEARS LATER
Conner Kavanaugh wasn’t normally given to bouts of chivalry, but then there was something decidedly different about the hot blonde currently trying to fend off Frankie’s interests. Frankie, may have been born into money but he was still white trash.
The round stool beneath Conner squealed when he turned back to rest his elbows against the scarred and lacquered bar. He put the long-neck bottle to his lips, taking a long pull and allowing the beer to slide down his throat.
He watched the scene in the reflective mirror behind the bartender. Frankie, an off-duty bartender, had one dirty boot on the stool next to hers. His hat was pushed back on his head. To her credit, the blonde wasn’t even looking at him. Conner snorted and took another sip of his beer. She was obviously thinking that subtlety would work on a guy like Frankie. But Conner knew better. Frankie didn’t comprehend anything less subtle than a two-by-four against his temple.
She didn’t exactly fit the type of woman who came trolling at The Grill. First off, her clothes were all wrong. Her Harvard sweatshirt was loose enough to cover all but the faintest outline of her breasts. And those jeans, he thought as he took another pull of beer. Though they were faded from wear, the material held a distinct crease – a dry-cleaners crease, he figured with an amused shake of his head. Well, at least she had spruced up her fanciest duds for her night out.
When she finally lifted her eyes, he felt the impact as if he’d been slapped. Even in the smoky haze of the bar, they were the greenest he’d ever seen. Clear, emerald green. And shimmering with anger.
Frankie apparently wasn’t seeing it that way. Conner watched the large man anchor himself on the stool as he pushed it just inches from his quarry. Why, he wondered, couldn’t this broad have picked a safer place to find Mr. Right Now? With her looks she could have sauntered up to the Dairy Queen and found someone to eager to spend the night with her. Maybe she liked slumming, he considered as he finished off his drink. He watched as Frankie continued to move in on her. The man had less finesse than a teenager on prom night in the front seat of his father’s pick-up. His big palm gripped her wrist, wrestling her hand to his sloppy mouth.
The woman’s eyes narrowed, but she didn’t seem to put up much of a fight. Conner’s chivalrous thoughts were dismissed when he realized he’d been wrong. “Happens,” he muttered with a shrug. Some women just like ‘em nasty.
He’d no sooner turned his attention away from them when he heard the familiar sound of a bottle being smashed. “Damn!” he sighed. He was off-duty and he sure as hell wasn’t in any mood to break-up a drunken bar fight.
Expecting to find a couple of townies squared off by the pool tables, he looked there first. It wasn’t the townies. He shifted his gaze in the opposite direction. It wasn’t Frankie. No, the hand holding the jagged glass weapon belonged to the Harvard blonde.
“You gonna do something?” the bartender fairly pleaded.
“Think I should?” Conner countered without taking his eyes off the standoff. “It’s my night off,” he mentioned almost casually.
“C’mon,” Bart groaned. “I can’t afford no more fights in here. Councilman Tuppman and his holier-than-thou wife are just itching for a reason to get my liquor license pulled. Anybody gets hurt, I can kiss this place good-bye.”
Now that would be a loss, Conner thought as he slowly got to his feet. His boots scraped the worn floor as he closed the space between himself and where Frankie stood, apparently ready to pounce on the woman or the weapon she brandished - or both.
Conner slipped his hand onto Frankie’s tensed shoulder. A small semi-circle of interested folks gathered around the participants.
“You don’t want to get into a brawl with a woman, do you Frankie? It sure would give Tarrant Parish a bad name.” Conner kept his eyes on the weapon.
“You gonna let that bitch get the best of you?” someone taunted.
“Yeah Frankie!” another voice echoed. “Can’t be letting no woman kick your ass!”
“Take that bottle away from her, Frankie!” someone else called. “Show her what a real man does when a woman gets outta line!”
Conner knew ‘ol Frankie would rise to the bait. Frankie was one of those individuals destined to spend his entire life being goaded by others. His past was testimony to that. His father had been leading him around by the nose for years. It didn’t seem to matter that Frankie was pushing forty-three.
“You really don’t want to do that, Frankie,” Conner said calmly. “Doesn’t take much of a man to beat up on a little thing like her.”
Frankie turned and snarled at him with eyes that were narrow and angry – just like the guy’s brain. Amazingly, the Harvard Blonde was shooting him a pretty hostile look as well. Apparently, everyone was having a bad day.
Frankie snarled, “This ain’t your concern, Kavanaugh.” He puffed out his muscled chest and added, “’Sides, you’re in no position to tell me what to do in here.”
Conner sighed. “I see it a little differently,” he countered. “My mamma was real clear on the rules about boys hitting girls.”
“Your mamma was a whore,” Frankie spat.
Conner’s first response was an audible, deep sigh. “Frankie, I don’t think you want to make me mad just now. Do you?”
Conner saw a faint flicker of uncertainty pass in the smaller man’s eyes. “You don’t scare me, Kavanaugh. Never have, never will.”
“I’m not trying to scare you. I’m trying to reason with you. Surely you have something better to do tonight than pick a fight with a girl.”
“Girl?” the Harvard Blonde scoffed.
The broken bottle never wavered from her target, not even when she tossed some of that long, thick hair over one shoulder. “I am not a girl. I don’t know why you feel the need to play Knight in Shining Armor, but I can assure you, I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”
Conner grinned. “That must be why you’re standing in the middle of a barroom full of sloppy-drunk men with a broken bottle in your hand.”
She stiffened with indignation and he wished he had just left out of the whole situation. “Suit yourself, sweetheart. Sorry for interrupting your fun.”
Her eyes burned like fire as she glared at him.
“Go on, Frankie!” one of the men yelled as Conner began to move backwards toward the bar. “Teach her some manners!”
Conner had every intention of leaving her to her own devices, let her learn a small lesson so long as it didn’t get truly bad. That lasted only until he saw the smallest flicker of fear on her face. He should have ignored it. She had basically told him as much. He should have let the foolish woman get her due. Lord knew she’d asked for it by coming to a place like this and giving Frankie the time of day. But as he thought about her small body being manhandled by a pig like Frankie, he knew he was going to help her. Even if she didn’t want him to.
“I’m sure you’re right capable of taking care of yourself,” he began as he stepped between her and Frankie. “But I wouldn’t be much of a gentleman if I – “
He hadn’t finished the sentence when he felt an explosion in the area of his ribs. His breath billowed in his cheeks. He heard the Harvard Blonde’s sharp shriek. He was almost sorry that Frankie hadn’t decided to sucker-punch him in the mouth. At least then he would have had the satisfaction of bleeding all over the dim-witted woman. As far as he was concerned, this whole situation was her fault.
“That,” he warned Frankie between clenched teeth, “wasn’t real smart.”
With speed belying his size, Conner caught the other man around the mid-section in a move that sent them spraying atop the pool table. Bracing his forearm across Frankie’s throat, Conner turned and glanced at the blonde. He caught a faint whiff of her perfume. Annoyed at the world in general and her specifically, he asked, “May I borrow your bottle please?”
Stunned, the woman relinquished it to his free hand. Ignoring her for the moment, Conner stared down at the menacing, red face of his opponent. The room had gone still and silent. He was able to hear every rasp of breath. Conner placed the jagged edge of the bottle to the base of Frankie’s throat.
“This ain’t your fight, Kavanaugh,” Frankie gasped in a whisper.
Conner eased his pressure hold on the man. “I beg to differ.” He allowed the glass to pierce Frankie’s sweaty skin. “You threw the first punch.”
“But I didn’t mean no harm.”
“Sure.” Conner put more weight into his hold. The action caused Frankie’s watered-down blue eyes to bulge in their sockets. “I don’t take kindly to having my ribs punched.”
Frankie’s thin lips pulled back to expose two rows of capped teeth. He managed to shrug defeat from beneath Conner’s hold and the threat of the jagged glass.
Conner moved close to the man’s ear. “When I let you up, you’ll head on out the door. Understand?”
Frankie was glaring, but he nodded. Somehow, Conner didn’t find his attitude very reassuring. He decided Frankie might definitely need just a bit more persuasion. Bracing one leg firmly on the floor, he brought his knee up and applied attention-getting pressure to Frankie’s crotch. “I didn’t catch your answer.”
The combination of the bottle against his juggler, the band of muscle against his throat, and the distinct threat to his privates apparently made Frankie see the error of his ways.
“I didn’t really want that frosty bitch anyways,” Frankie puffed, casting his eyes in the direction of the woman. “I like my women a whole hell of a lot softer than her.”
“Then there won’t be a problem,” Conner acknowledged.
Slowly, he eased off the man, but kept the broken bottle raised just in case Frankie got another attack of the stupids. He knew from prior experience that ninety percent of Frankie’s decision-making was fifty-percent stupid.
Luckily, this wasn’t one of those times. Conner placed himself and the weapon between the Harvard Blonde and Frankie while the latter collected his hat. Shoving through the visibly disappointed group of men, Frankie stomped out of the bar. Expelling a breath, Conner had a sinking suspicion this wasn’t quite over. Frankie was short on brains but long on memory.
Absently, he kneaded his ribs, relieved when he felt only mildly uncomfortable. Cracked ribs were a pain in the ass. Speaking of pains in the ass, he turned, wanting an explanation from Miss Harvard Blonde.
What she apparently lacked in common sense, she definitely had in looks. He felt the beginnings of a smile. Her hair was beautiful, spilling well below her shoulders in a simple, no-frills style. Judging from the way she had smashed the beer bottle to challenge a man twice her size, Conner assumed her hair was simply an extension of her personality – blunt.
“Come here often?” he remarked casually.
She regarded him with something amazingly akin to defiance. He could see it in the subtle thrust of her chin and the small fists balled at her sides.
“You didn’t need to come to my rescue,” she responded tightly.
Her accent was southern, but not North Florida southern.
“I could have controlled the situation.”
“It didn’t look like that from where I was sitting,” he told her. Hell, he didn’t expect her to fall into his arms and kiss him with gratitude, but it annoyed him that she couldn’t so much as say ‘thanks’. She owed him that. She could at least show him the courtesy of civility.
“You could have hurt him.”
Was that censure she heard in her tone? “Excuse me?”
Her hands moved to her hips. “The broken bottle would have allowed me to make a quick, gracious exit. There was no need for you to hold it against his throat and incite a fight.”
His blood pressure went up a notch or two. “I prevented a fight, sweetheart.”
“Not from where I was sitting,” she returned in a near-perfect imitation of his drawl.
“This is crazy!”
“No,” she countered. “You’re crazy.
She breezed past him as if he was nothing more than a minor annoyance. A gnat she might swat, had she been so inclined to donate some of her precious time.
The few men who still lingered parted as if she was royalty. Of course, given the regal way she swayed her tight, little derrière, it didn’t surprise him. It just made him madder than hell.
“Wait a minute!”
Her step faltered beneath his thunderous command but she still pushed the door open and walked out into the night. He should just leave it alone. Chalk it up to a good deed for which he would eventually be rewarded. But he didn’t feel much like waiting for eventually. She owed him, and he believed in collecting on his debts.
Depositing the broken bottle on the bar as he strode by, Conner stormed after her. Like it or not, the woman was going to get his short lesson on manners.
Cool, fresh air welcomed him as he stepped from The Grill. It took him less than a second to find her. It was easy. He simply followed the chirping sound made as she disarmed her Lexus in the dark parking lot.
She really was slumming, he grumbled inwardly as he jogged over to her car. He got there just in time to see her settle in behind the wheel and to block the closing of her car door with his body.
Angling her head up at him, Conner felt his annoyance double at the exasperation plainly visible in the tiny lines at the corners of her full lips.
“Stop being a jerk,” she warned, impatient.
“A jerk?” he parroted.
“Okay,” she amended, batting her long lashes at him. “Stop being a complete asshole.”
Her condescension didn’t bother him so much as the voice. This woman had a cultured cadence in her voice. The kind of speech pattern learned only in the finest schools. It was the kind of speech that didn’t usually include the names and expletives she had so easily tossed at him.
“If I’m such an asshole, how come you’re looking to get laid in a dive like this?”
She blinked once. “And who told you I was looking to get laid, as you so coarsely put it.”
“Why else would a woman like you come to a place like this?”
“For a beer?” she suggested.
“Were they all out at the country club?”
“I’ve got news for you,” she said as she reached for the door handle. “I don’t belong to any country clubs but I do enjoy a beer now and again.”
“I would suggest you enjoy it someplace other than here.”
“Oh, I get it!” she said in a breathy, sarcastic rush. “This is one of those quaint ‘men only’ places.”
“You could say that.”
She gave him an exaggerated dumb-blonde sigh. “Gee, I guess I should have checked the corners of the building for urine. Isn’t that how most lower animal species mark their territory?”
Conner chuckled. She was quick. “Would you have liked it better if I would have let ‘ol Frankie, have you?”
“Frankie would not have had me.”
“There’s not a whole lot of you, sweetheart. That bottle trick would have protected you for a while, but not forever. Frankie and his friends would have seen to that.”
“Perhaps,” she said. “But I still believe I could have handled it myself.”
Placing his palms on the polished roof of the fancy car, Conner leaned down. The red interior of the car smelled new. She smelled fresh, like the air after a shower.
“I’m willing to concede that you might have been able to pull it off, if you’re willing to concede that it was damned neighborly of me to intervene on your behalf.”
Her lashes fluttered against her cheeks. The action caused his body to respond with alarming speed. Her skin was pale, flawless and slightly flushed from the cool evening air. She was a tiny thing but the word ‘vulnerable’ didn’t even enter his mind.
She hesitated, and then said, “Okay. Thank you for being neighborly, Mr. –“
“Conner Kavanaugh. Conner to my friends.”
“Mr. Kavanaugh,” she said, a small smile curved the corners of her mouth.
“And you are?”
“About to leave,” she answered, gently tugging on the door.
Ignoring the feel of metal against the backs of his calves, Conner remained planted in the spot. “I’d like to know your name. Telling me would be the neighborly thing for you to do.”
“I guess I’m just not as neighborly as you are.” Some of the annoyance had returned to her eyes.
“I don’t know,” he drawled, “You impress me as a lady with potential.” Conner gave her his best grin. The one that had talked his fair share of women out of their panties.
She looked as volatile as a fast-approaching tornado. “Potential?”
He nodded. “Knew it the minute I set eyes on you.”
The lips he’d been admiring pulled into a tight smile.
“I get it. You’re under the impression that since you defended my honor – so to speak – I’m now fair game?”
“I’m game if you are,” he teased, hoping to get her to lighten up.
“I hate to disappoint you,” she said in a tone that told him she didn’t mind disappointing him at all.
“I wasn’t interested in spoils,” he insisted.
“And I’m not interested, period.”
“Sure you are,” he told her without conceit. “Or your eyes wouldn’t be flickering between my face and my –“
“My eyes have not flickered.”
Her voice was stiff and haughty. Still he sensed just a trace of wariness behind her brave words. The lady wasn’t as immune as she was letting on. That knowledge filled him with a hefty dose of male pride.
“Suit yourself. But I’d be right flattered if they did.” Conner moved and she closed the door. She surprised him when she lowered the window.
“You’re either desperate or a bigger jerk than I originally thought.”
“Careful, sweetheart,” he said as his fingers reached out to brush the soft underside of her chin. Her skin was silky soft and he wondered what the rest of her body felt like. He also wondered why she hadn’t so much as flinched at the contact. Perhaps this lady liked games. Specifically the ‘convince me’ game. “You don’t want to hurt my feelings, do you?”
“I really don’t give a flaming hoot about your feelings, Kavanaugh.”
His fingers traced the delicate outline of her throat until he encountered the edge of her collar. His eyes followed his hands, inspiring all sorts of fantasies.
Then he heard an unmistakable click.
His gaze moved toward the sound. His fingers stilled as he found himself looking down the barrel of a small caliber gun.
“Take your hand off me,” she said calmly.
The fingers gripping the gun were as steady as her gaze. Conner wondered how he had managed to get himself into such a mess. So much for chivalry, he thought as he slowly pulled his hand back. He knew the answer, he was thinking with the wrong part of his anatomy. Stupid.
“Do you always use a gun as persuasion?” He was careful to keep his tone conversational. Apparently she didn’t like that. He could tell by the flash of surprise in her eyes. She must have thought her little Annie Oakley moment would have had a more intimidating effect. Of course, he still wasn’t sure she wouldn’t shoot, but he’d gnaw off his own tongue before admitting that to her.
“If you’ll recall, Kavanaugh, I asked you nicely first.”
“I guess I wasn’t listening right,” he said, stepping away from the car.
He heard her start the engine. She propped the gun on the window frame. Her eyes never left him. Not for an instant.
“Perhaps in the future you’ll remember that no actually means no.”