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Head Over Heels
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The wail of country music and the bar's smoky, beery smell hit Veronica Davis like a smack upside the head the moment she pushed through the Baker Street Honky Tonk's door. It immediately took her back, bombarding her with a raft of memories.
None of them wonderful.
Stopping just inside the doorway, she drew a couple of deep, carefully controlled breaths and watched a thin haze of smoke drift by on the current she'd created. It wafted and eddied, taking on the multi-colored hues of the neon liquor signs that passed for decor in the dimly lit bar. Votive candles in what she'd swear were the same smoke-smudged glass containers that had been there twelve years ago flickered in the center of each table.
There was a momentary lull while the jukebox switched to a new song. Voices rose and fell, balls clacked at the pool table in the corner, and glasses clinked as a waitress gathered empties from a recently vacated table and stacked them on a tray. A flash of panic threatened to stop the breath in Veronica's lungs, and she forcibly reminded herself that this was merely a brief visit to introduce herself to the new bartender/manager Marissa had hired and to get a quick overview of how the bar was doing. She hadn't worked here for years and didn't intend to ever again, so there was no earthly reason to feel as if she should turn tail and run.
As the waitress balanced the tray of empties in one hand and leaned across the table to wipe up a spill, Veronica remembered only too well how perpetually sticky the tables seemed to remain, no matter how often you washed them. She remembered, too, as a raucous group of men at another table made lewd remarks about the way the waitress filled out her jeans, the constant nerve-wearing commentary.
Oh God. Considering the circumstances that had brought her back to Fossil, she hadn't thought her stomach could possibly feel more chewed up than it already did. But she'd been wrong. While she'd never forgotten what it was like to dodge the free and easy hands of drunken men, it had been a long time since she'd had to deal with it, and its gut-churning immediacy had long ago faded.
But it all came rushing back as she watched one of the men take advantage of the waitress' occupied hands to grab her bottom. An old, familiar taste of impotent fury flooded Veronica's mouth as he grinned at his friends and gave the rounded cheek beneath his palm a squeeze. Incensed, she started forward.
She stopped dead, however, when the waitress's loaded tray dropped to the tabletop with a horrendous crash. It caught the side of the candle holder, which skittered across the table but luckily stopped before it toppled over the edge."That does it!" The cocktail waitress's furious voice rang clear in the sudden cessation of conversation and, reaching back, she raked crimson inch long fingernails across the man's hand, then whirled to face him as the hand jerked back.
The drunk yelped in outrage and surged to his feet, sending his chair clattering across the floor. "You bitch!" Droplets of blood began to form in the raw scratches across his hand and he stared at them incredulously. Then, making a fist, he drew it back as if to strike her.
A strangled protest slipping up her throat, Veronica tried to get to the woman's side. But before she could push past the patrons who'd climbed to their feet for a better view of the ruckus, a deep male voice roared out.
"Knock it off!"
Like everyone else, she stopped dead, arrested by the sheer authority that had an entire bar freezing in its tracks.
Then she saw the person responsible for it and simply stared.
Whoa Nellie. This must be Cooper Blackstock, the new bartender Marissa had hired to manage the bar.
He was big and dangerous-looking, with those narrowed, assessing eyes and stubborn jaw, that hard-as-granite body, and those cheekbones sharp enough to slice. And that hair. She couldn't seem to stop staring at it as he came out from behind the bar, for it was like nothing she'd seen on the career men she dated.
Good gravy, did he dye it? The adult men in this small eastern Washington town would never dream of doing anything so feminine, but that had to be dyed. Short and punk-rocker spiky, it was a pale, Nordic blond that looked nearly white against a face surprisingly tanned for January. Yet the bold slash of his eyebrows and the spiked fringe of his lashes were blacker than the devil's soul, his skin was olive-toned, and his eyes were an impenetrable bittersweet chocolate brown.
Fossil was a conservative town, and the Tonk's clientele could be merciless with someone as different as this guy was, so he had to have taken a rash over his exotic appearance. But if the go-to-hell look in his eyes was any indication, he was utterly unheeding of anyone's opinion but his own. He strode through the crowd with an aggressive, this-is-who-I-am-and-you-can-just-kiss-my-ass-if-you-don't-like-it attitude, and people who hadn't budged when Veronica was trying to go to the waitress' aid parted like the Red Sea before Moses at Blackstock's approach.
The drunk thrust his hand out for inspection the moment the bartender arrived at the table. "Look what she did to me," he complained. His mates' mocking comments about a woman beating him up fanned the already roaring blaze of his ire, and he puffed up like a bantam rooster. "I oughtta sue her butt!"
"You ought to keep your hands off her butt and count yourself lucky she doesn't sue you for sexual harassment." Cooper picked up the chair and set it down at the table with a thump. He gave the patron a hard stare. "You owe her an apology."
"The hell you say! Lookit this -- she drew blood!"
"Damn right I did," the waitress agreed. "I'm sick to death of these idiots thinking my tits and ass are public property. So, you know what, buddy?" She shouldered past the bartender to get in the face of her harasser. "I don't want your stinking apology. Feel free to stick it where the sun don't shine!" Then, whipping off the white apron around her hips, she turned back to Cooper and slapped the garment against his stomach with enough force to double over a softer man. "I quit! You don't pay me enough for this shit."
"Rosetta, wait; don't do this to me." His big fist crushed the apron as he watched her stalk behind the bar, bend out of sight for an instant, then pop back up with her purse in her hand. "C'mon. We can work this out--""No. We can't. I've had it up to my eyeballs with these jerks. I'm gonna go get me a job where I don't have to deal with men who find their personalities in the bottom of a bottle."
Silently empathetic, Veronica stepped out of the way as the waitress brushed past her and headed for the door. Watching it swing shut behind the woman, she experienced the first little spurt of cheer she'd felt since arriving home from Scotland to be greeted with the news of her sister Crystal's death. Good for Rosetta. Veronica had lost count of the number of times she'd longed to quit exactly like that. But she'd been stuck, because this was Daddy's bar, and he'd been an old-school chauvinist who'd refused to hear of it. And her love for him had neatly caged her in.
She almost turned around and walked out now. The bartender was going to be shorthanded, and probably tied up tighter than a submissive at a bondage festival just trying to see to it that everyone got served quickly. It was unlikely he'd have a free moment, let alone the time to give her a rundown on the bar's status.
And yet. . .
If she left now, she might never come back. Unlike Crystal, who'd always reveled in the ongoing party that was the Tonk, Veronica couldn't remember a time when she hadn't disliked the place. If it had been left up to her, she never would have stepped foot in the place again.
But Crystal was no longer here, and Veronica had a responsibility to fulfill, so it was time to behave like an adult and get on with it. Mentally girding her loins, she walked up to the bar.
She waited as the crush of customers who'd brought their empties up to be refilled began to thin. Then, as the bartender built a drink for the last one in line and made change, Veronica squared her shoulders.
He looked up as she stepped forward, and gave her a comprehensive once-over. "You're new around here," he said in a low voice. "I'd remember that skin if I'd seen it before." His gaze seemed to track every inch of it before his eyes rose to meet hers. "What can I get you?"
Veronica blinked. Wow. She was surprised the men of Fossil didn't keep their women under lock and key around this guy, for even she could feel the sexuality that poured off of him in waves, and he wasn't at all her type. "Are you Mr. Blackstock?"
"Yeah, but call me Coop," he invited and flashed her a smile that was surprisingly charming for someone with such watchful eyes. "I'm always tempted to look around for my dad whenever I hear anyone call me mister, and he's been gone a long, long time." Then he became all business. "Since you know my name," he said, "I assume you're here for the job."
"No!" She stepped back, her hands flying up as if they could push the very idea away. Oh, no, no, no-- she'd sworn when she graduated from college that she would never serve another drink as long as she lived. It was a vow she'd kept, too, and she intended to keep on keeping it right up until the day they planted her body in the cold, hard ground.
Seeing those dark brows of his lift toward his blond hairline, she forced her shoulders to lose their defensive hunch and her hands to drop back to her sides. Oh, smooth, Davis. You might wanna try keeping the idiot quotient to a bare minimum here. "I'm sorry, I should have introduced myself." Head held high, giving her fine wool blazer a surreptitious tug to remind herself she'd come a long way from the Tonk, she stepped back up to the bar. "I'm Veronica Davis. I just stopped by to see how the place is doing."
He stilled. At least she thought he did, but the moment came and went so quickly she was left wondering if perhaps she'd simply imagined it, for in the next instant he seemed perfectly relaxed, his smile every bit as charming as it had been a second ago. She blew out a weary sigh. It had been a very long day and exhaustion was clearly making her see things that weren't there.
"You want to know how it's doing?" Coop demanded coolly. "Well, I'll tell you, lady, right this minute not so hot. But things are looking up now that I've got you in my sights. Here." He tossed her something and reflexively she reached up to snatch it out of the air before it hit her in the face. "Put that on," he instructed. "And get to work. We're shorthanded."
She looked down at the white chef's apron in her fist, then dropped it as if it were a cockroach, her head snapping up to stare at him in horror. "I'm not serving drinks!"
"Listen, Princess, I've got one waitress who called in sick and another who just quit. You want the Tonk to close down and lose a night's receipts, that's up to you. But don't expect me to knock myself out if you're too high-toned to sully those lily-white hands schlepping a few drinks."
She glared at him, but he merely shrugged a big shoulder and reached for the pitcher that a customer at the end of the bar held out for a refill. He set it in the sink and grabbed a clean one, tilting it beneath a spigot. Veronica watched the play of muscles in his forearms below the shoved-up sleeves of a butter-cream-colored sweater as he regulated the flow of beer down the side of the pitcher; she scowled at the rawboned knobs of his wrists and the sheer size of his big-knuckled hands.
Who was this guy, with his farmer's body and his warrior's eyes, to tell her what to do? What gave him the right to threaten her with the bar's closure? Technically, she was the owner here, and that made her his boss. If anybody should be giving orders, it was she.
But she was just too worn out and emotional to get into it. Particularly with someone who looked the type to relish a good fight, and the more down and dirty, the better. Not to mention he might simply quit like Rosetta-- and wouldn't that just be the icing on her cake.
Still, it didn't keep her from resenting his attitude. He didn't know her. He didn't have the first idea how hard she'd worked to get away from this place, so how dare he look at her as if she were too snooty to do an honest day's work? If she was smart, she'd just walk away right now, the way she should have done earlier, and to hell with the bar. Let it fall down around everyone's ears; she really didn't give a rat's rear end.
Except. . . The Tonk was her niece Lizzy's inheritance, now that Crystal was gone.
Gone. Pain slashed through Veronica. Her sister had been found murdered last month, and Lizzy's father Eddie Chapman had been charged with the crime. And just to make things really special, mere hours after the judge at the preliminary hearing had determined there was probable cause for a trial, Eddie had skipped town.
Leaving his daughter a virtual orphan.
Except for her. Veronica straightened her shoulders. Lizzy still had her. And she owed it to her niece to keep the Tonk going until a buyer could be found. Given the situation and the twisted convolutions of the legal system, God only knew if the child would ever realize anything from Eddie's holdings. So Veronica was determined to scrape together every red cent she could in order to secure Lizzy's future.
She bent down and swiped up the apron. Straightening, she removed her blazer and carefully folded it, then tied the apron around her hips and reached for a tray. She met the dark-eyed gaze of the bartender, who'd paused mid-pour to level a Get-a-move-on look at her. Nazi bastard.
But aloud she merely said, "Here," and passed him her jacket and purse. "Where do you want me to start?"