Every time the New England Patriots chalked one up in the win column, Kevin Kowalski got laid.
A score for them was a score for him. Not that he was always looking for a companion on a Sunday night, but the offers weren’t scarce. As he slid a foaming mug of Sam Adams down the polished surface of the best damn sports bar in New Hampshire’s capital city—which just happened to list his name as proprietor—he caught a blonde watching him. The Pats were lining up at first and goal on the big-screen, but her eyes were on him, letting him know the New England quarterback wasn’t the only guy in scoring position.
But tonight he was having a hard time concentrating on the blonde with the chemically enhanced lips, surgically enhanced boobs and alcoholenhanced sex drive giving him the you could go all the way look.
He was too busy keeping his eye on the brunette at the other end of the bar. It wasn’t just the fact she was pretty, with a mess of dark brown hair falling to her shoulders and eyes to match. Or that her fisherman’s sweater and jeans hugged her body in all the right places, though that certainly didn’t hurt.
Mostly he was keeping an eye on her because her date was going downhill in a hurry. Either the guy in the uptight, button-down shirt and khakis had had a couple before he’d walked into the bar or he had the alcohol tolerance of a high-school freshman, because it had only taken a couple shots of Scotch for Drunken Asshole Syndrome to kick in.
Now there was some body language going on between the couple, and her body wanted away from his body. His fingers would start looking for a soft place to land. She’d deflect. Rinse and repeat.
Jasper’s Bar & Grille had three rules. No smoking. No throwing beer mugs, even at the Jets fans. And when a lady said no, it meant no.
The Patriots scored, and the glasses shook on the shelves as a triumphant roar filled Jasper’s. The blonde hopped up and down on her bar stool, her boobs testing the bungee ability of her bra straps.
And the jerk with the wandering hands raised his empty glass to wave it in Kevin’s general direction.
He made his way down to the couple but ignored the glass. “We won’t be serving you any more alcohol, but you’re welcome to a coffee or a soda, on the house.”
Uptight Guy’s face turned as red as a Budweiser label, and Kevin sighed. He was going to be one of those guys. Jasper’s had a zero-tolerance policy, so as the guy’s ass lifted off the stool, Kevin gave Paulie the signal and watched her roll her eyes as she reached for the phone.
“I’m not drunk and I want another goddamn Scotch!”
The woman put her hand on the guy’s arm, as if to push him back onto his seat. “Derek, let’s—”
“Who the hell are you to tell me I can’t have another goddamn Scotch?”
Uptight Guy’s badass act was diluted a bit by the weaving. “I’m the guy who reserves the right to refuse you service.”
“Beth, tell this asshole to gimme another drink.”
Kevin shook his head. “You’re cut off.”
It happened fast. Kevin wasn’t sure if the guy was throwing a punch or reaching in to grab him by the shirt, but his elbow hit his date and knocked her backward. She didn’t fall, thanks to the guy sitting next to her, who was pleasantly surprised to find himself with an armful of brunette, but it distracted Kevin enough to allow the guy to land a weak, glancing blow to his jaw.
Uptight Guy, whom the woman had called Derek, sucked in a breath, as if he just realized what he’d done. Kevin watched as the guy’s fightor-flight instinct kicked in and wasn’t surprised when he chose flight. Sadly for him, Kevin was six-two and had some experience collaring yahoos, whether they were crooks back when he’d worn a badge or his four rowdy nephews. He reached across the bar, grabbed the guy by the scruff of the neck and yanked him back.
Derek was struggling like a pickerel on a hook and, when Kevin’s grip almost slipped off the guy’s collar, he jerked hard. Derek’s head snapped around, and his nose exploded on the edge of the bar. Oops.
The guy screamed like a girl…and the crowd went wild. Jasper’s didn’t attract a real rough crowd, but everybody loved a good fight.
“Good fight” being relative, of course. Derek cupped his hands over his face, trying to staunch the blood and let out a high-pitched keening sound that made more than a few of the patrons wince.
“Shut up or I’ll knock your ass out,” Kevin yelled at the guy which, of course, got everybody in the bar chanting. Do it…do it…do it…
“Oh, my God, his nose!” Derek’s date untangled herself from her neighbor and grabbed a couple of napkins off the bar. She tried to get to Derek’s nose, but he kept pushing her away.
The crowd quieted when a couple of police officers walked through the front door. Derek’s keening changed pitch when he saw them, from a pain-filled squeal to an oh, shit desperation.
“Hey, Kowalski,” the older of the two cops said.
“Hey, Jonesy. Your old man like those tickets?”
“Are you kidding me? Tenth row, fifty-yard line? He was in heaven. Said to tell you thanks and give you his best.”
“Glad to do it,” he said easily, still holding on to Derek’s collar. He fostered a friendly relationship with the local P.D., not only because he’d been on the job once down in Boston, but because any good businessman did. Especially businessmen who served alcohol. “Got a live one here.”
“What happened to him?”
“Hit his face on the bar. You know how it is.”
In the split second between Kevin releasing him and Jonesy grabbing for his wrists, Derek stupidly decided to make a break for the door.
The rookie made a move to stop him at the same time Beth did. She accidentally—at least it looked accidental—tripped him, and the young cop fell on his face. Jonesy jumped over his partner and did the nearing-retirement version of a sprint after Derek.
Beth was practically hyperventilating.
The rookie scrambled to his feet as Jonesy took down his prey in a half-ass diving tackle that made the crowd roar in approval. Rookie had his handcuffs out, but it looked as if Uptight Guy was going all-in on a resisting charge.
“Why are you doing this to him?”
Kevin’s gaze swiveled to the woman, who looked almost as pissed as her date. “I didn’t do jack to him, lady. Did you forget the part where he hit you?”
“He didn’t hit me. He bumped me trying to hit you.”
Yeah, that was so much better. “How about the groping? How many times were you going to tell him no?”
She actually rolled her eyes at him. “I had it all under control.”
“No, now it’s all under control.”
“Look, it’s not what you… Forget it. You have to help him, though.”
Since Derek had two hundred pounds of veteran cop kneeling on his head while the rookie tried to secure the cuffs, there wasn’t much Kevin could do for him, even if he wanted to. Which he didn’t.
“It’s not what you think,” she insisted.
“I’m going to sue you for everything you’ve got, asshole,” Derek screamed over his shoulder. “And you, you dumb bitch, you’re fired!”
Oops. Kevin looked at Beth. “I thought he was just a bad date.”
She climbed onto a stool and dropped her forehead to the bar with a thunk. “You just cost me my job.”
Only several years of fine-tuning his brain-to-mouth filter behind the bar kept him from pointing out she was maybe better off without it. “Want a beer?”
A beer? Rambo the bartender here thought a beer was going to fix the mess he’d gotten her into? Beth Hansen curled her hands into fists to keep from reaching across the bar and shaking him like a martini.
So Derek was a drunken ass. So what else was new? It was nothing she couldn’t handle. She handled it once a week or so, as a matter of fact, and had been for three months.
After work, Derek would leave the office and walk down the street to have a drink. He’d call his secretary—that would be her—with some bogus excuse requiring her to stop by the bar. A paper that needed signing. A fax he’d forgotten to read but absolutely had to before he went home. She’d show up, he’d try to get in her pants, she’d put him in a cab and the next day they’d pretend it didn’t happen.
Sometimes, like today, he’d even drag her out on a weekend. Maybe not ideal working conditions, but she’d suffered worse.
But this time Derek’s usual bar was closed for renovations, so he’d kept on walking until he’d come to Jasper’s Bar & Grille. Now her boss had a broken nose, and she had no job.
A beer wasn’t going to help.
She lifted her head and propped her chin on her hand. “Did you have to call the police?”
“You could have let it go.”
He rested his palms on the edge of the bar and looked her in the eye. God, he was tall. And that wasn’t all he had going for him. Besides the height and the blue eyes and the dimples, he had broad shoulders straining the seams of an ancient Red Sox T-shirt and thick brown hair that had that careless style of a man who didn’t want to fuss with it. Probably mid-thirties.
“Lady, he punched me in the face.”
“It wasn’t much of a punch,” she muttered, since she couldn’t deny it. “I almost had him talked into a cab, but you had to go and make it a big deal.”
“Hey, Kevin,” a younger guy called out. “Can we make a mimosa?”
“This is a sports bar, not Easter brunch.” He turned back to her, shaking his head. “All I did was tell him he was cut off. Not only do I have the right, but when a patron’s visibly intoxicated, I have the obligation. And I ain’t exactly a turn-the-other-cheek guy when it comes to getting punched in the face.”
Kevin had a point. It wasn’t his fault her boss was a jerk, so blaming him was probably a little unreasonable. But the only difference between the previous times and this time was him. “You didn’t have to break his nose.”
“That I didn’t really mean to do. He slipped. Kind of.” The sheepish, dimpled grin he gave her was so irresistible she could feel aggravation’s hold on her temper loosening.
She was about to respond when he reached his arms up to a high shelf. Muscles rippled under his T-shirt and, when he stretched for a stack of folded towels, a gap opened between its hem and the waistband of his low-slung jeans. The tantalizing glimpse of abs made her mouth go dry, which was okay because she’d forgotten what she was going to say, anyway.
When he moved out from behind the bar to mop at Derek’s blood, she grimaced and moved over a stool. Not that she was queasy, but because Kevin smelled as good as he looked. And the closer he got to her, the better he looked.
Then, without warning, her view was blocked by a busty blonde whose outfit made Daisy Duke’s look like going-to-church clothes. The woman handed Kevin what looked like a Jasper’s napkin with lipstick smeared on it. The same shade painted on the woman’s plumped and puckered-up mouth.
“Hi, Kevin,” the blonde said in pretty much the same breathless, baby-doll voice Marilyn Monroe had used to wish President Kennedy a very, very happy birthday. “Here’s my number. You know…in case you want to call me…or something.”
He winked at her as he took the napkin. “Thanks, doll. I just might do that.”
Beth managed to hold it in until Hooters-wanna-be Barbie had simpered out the front door, then she rolled her eyes. “Doll? Smooth line, Mickey Spillane.”
“Hey, makin’ the ladies happy is good for business.”
“Yeah, and I bet you’re just the man for the job. You should go after her. She seems just your type.”
That wiped the naughty-boy charm off his face. “What makes you think you know anything about my type?”
She shrugged, making it clear she didn’t really give a damn. “Careful you don’t smear your napkin. And speaking of business, I need to go find another job now.”
“I feel bad about that, even though it wasn’t really my fault.”
“I’ll get over it.” She slid off the stool and started toward the door. “Have a nice life. Doll.”
* * * * *
Kevin smiled for the camera. Then he smiled again. And again and again and again.
“Okay,” the bossy photographer said. “Now a few of the bride and her ladies, and then we’ll do the groom and his brothers.”
With matching sighs of relief, Kevin and his brothers Joe and Mike, along with their brother-in-law Evan, moved away from the gaggle of women. They’d been at the picture-taking thing for twenty minutes already and, early October or not, it was hot in a tux.
Joe’s reception was at some swanky hotel-slash-banquet center that specialized in wedding receptions. As far as Kevin could tell, that meant they had a shitload of places to take pictures. In front of the garden. In front of the rock waterfall. Under the gazebo thing in front of the pond. His cheeks were starting to ache.
Mike tugged at his collar, but not so much the drill sergeant with the camera would bark at him. “I’m ready to hit the bar.”
Kevin nodded, though he didn’t fidget because their mother was giving them the I’m watching you look. “Joe, I swear, if they don’t hurry up, your wedding photos are going to look more like a Chippendale’s photo shoot.”
“If I’d known you two were going to whine like a couple of girls, I would have had you be bridesmaids instead of my best men. You’d look good in a dress.”
Kevin snorted. “Don’t make me kick your ass on your wedding day.”
“Terry sure looks good in her dress,” Evan said. “Kinda makes you want to—”
“No,” Terry’s three brothers said in unison.
Their brother-in-law scowled. “I hate that. I never get to share the good stuff.”
Mike laughed. “Joey and Danny are old enough to watch the younger two in a room of their own. I’ll be doing the good stuff to Lisa later.”
Must be nice. After the wedding, they’d all be heading upstairs to their rooms to do the good stuff. Joe and his gorgeous new bride, Keri. Mike and Lisa. Evan and Terry.
He, on the other hand, was stag at his own brother’s wedding so the only good stuff he had to look forward to was losing the cummerbund and penguin shoes.
It had been a couple of years since Kevin’s marriage had exploded in a cloud of toxic flames, torching his career along with the relationship, and since then his libido had survived on a steady diet of bar bunnies. Less satisfying, but also a lot less risk, like eating a microwave meal instead of preparing a five-course meal. A lot less painful to throw away if it sucked.
He’d gone through his share of willing companions after the divorce, when he bought the bar, but lately he’d been making the trip upstairs to his apartment alone more often than not. The kind of women willing to spend one night with a guy they didn’t know just because he filled out his shirts well, or so he was told, and owned the bar weren’t the kind of women he wanted to have breakfast with the next morning.
And definitely not the kind of women you brought to your brother’s wedding.
Unfortunately, thoughts of his type of woman led to thoughts of Beth, the pretty brunette who’d passed judgment on his type and been totally wrong. It had been two days since he busted her boss’s nose and it irked him he kept thinking about her. It also irked him she’d left with the impression he was some kind of player.
If she wasn’t so prickly—and if he knew her last name or where she lived—he’d probably like an opportunity to show her she was wrong about his type. He wasn’t sure why he cared, but it bugged him she’d left with such a bad opinion of him. He wasn’t used to that.
“Almost our turn,” Joe said, jerking him out of his thoughts. “And then we should be able to go inside. And do more…girly wedding stuff. Whatever. Keri’s so happy she’s gonna bust, so it’s worth it.”
“So are you,” Mike pointed out. “I still don’t know how you pulled this all off.”
Joe snorted. “It’s called a blank check, my friend. Keri wanted fall foliage and I wasn’t waiting a year for her to be my wife, so I said the magic words—money’s no object.”
His brother didn’t usually make a big deal about the money the sick horror novels he wrote earned, but a blank check from him was a pretty big blank check.
The drill sergeant bellowed for them. “Okay, I want groomsmen lined up behind the groom, four inches between you and slightly angled away from the camera. You, the tall one—you’re in the back.”
Screw that. Kevin threw his arm around Joe’s shoulders and pulled him into a headlock. Joe jerked to the right, trying to escape, but he moved right into Mike’s waiting noogie. Evan laughed and added rabbit ears to the back of Joe’s head.
The photographer almost dropped her big, fancy camera, but the mothers of the bride and groom were hitting the shutter button as fast as their compact digital numbers would fire.
“Kowalski Wedding Photo of Doom,” the bride shouted and Mike’s four boys and Terry’s almost-teenage daughter joined the pig pile.
They were all still laughing, a little breathless and more than a little sweaty when the wedding planner finally pulled them apart and ushered them inside. Thankfully the black tuxedos hid the grass stains, but Stephanie’s dress was missing some lace around the hem.
They were supposed to go to the head table, but there were still toasts and formal dances and more freaking pictures to survive before the party could begin and he wasn’t getting through all that with nothing but a sissy glass of champagne. With beer on his mind and a possible redheaded dance partner in his peripheral vision, he made a quick detour to the open bar.
And came face to face with Beth.