A week later Coop was back at the bar. He told himself he wasn’t there for her, that he was meeting Ethan. But since the woman who’d rocked his world for long sweaty hours last Friday night had done a Cinderella on him and disappeared before morning, he was determined to track her down.
And it wasn’t just the sex. The shadows in her eyes had spoken to him in a way that only a man with shadows of his own understood.
Ethan arrived and they clapped each other on the back as they embraced. When Coop had taken off on his country-wide trek over a year ago he hadn’t figured he’d miss his best bud as much as he had.
“It’s good to have you back, man,” Ethan said as they settled in a booth.
“Couldn’t leave Dad in the lurch,” Coop shrugged. “And it was probably time anyway.”
Coop had healed a lot physically and mentally while he’d been away, but he’d needed that little push to bring him back into the fold. He still wasn’t sure he’d have come back had his father’s heart not decided to turn dicky.
Drifting had started to look more and more attractive.
“How’d his op, go?” Ethan asked.
“Good. Few days yet ’til they release him. Mum wants him to take a few months off.”
“And the garage?”
“I’ll look after it while he’s away.”
Ethan shook his head. “You’re wasting your talent. You could get into private security or become one of those fancy PIs.”
Coop suppressed a snort at Ethan’s grin. Chasing after loan defaulters and cheating husbands? No way. “Tinkering around car engines is my talent. My mother reckons I was under a car the second I could crawl.”
“Well your timing couldn’t be more perfect.”
Coop watched as his friend’s face grew serious—its default position. Ethan hadn’t changed much from the solemn recruit he’d met when they’d both been at the academy. A little older now—hell, at thirty-two they both were—but Ethan looked it.
He was still the reserved, serious guy he’d always been. The guy who’d had the responsibility of being the man of the house thrust on his shoulders at fifteen when his father, the local police chief, had been killed on the job. And even more thrust on him when he’d become a father himself at the age of twenty-one and given up his dream of a becoming a homicide detective to go back to Jumbuck Springs and do the right thing by Delia and his kid.
“We’ve been worried about Lace and I feel so much better knowing that you’re in the same town.” Ethan took a long pull of his beer. “We didn’t handle it … her, very well. After Mum … She was inconsolable, crying all the time … I think she resents us for making her come here. But she always wanted to go to design college and Mum …”
He paused, raked a hand through his hair. “She made us promise. So we … didn’t take no for an answer.”
Coop could see the internal thinking of a grieving teenage girl were as much a mystery to Ethan as they were to him. “What makes you think she’s resentful?”
“She got drunk at the pub when she was home over the Christmas break. Messy drunk. Made a complete fool of herself.”
Coop laughed. “That’s it? She got drunk? She’s a college kid. They’re put on this earth to drink and make fools of themselves.”
“But she’s …”
Ethan shot him a defeated look. “Yes. What if she’s …doing that here? Going out and getting hammered every weekend. What if she’s indulging in other risk-taking activities?”
“C’mon man, credit her with more sense,” Coop assured. “She’s a Weston. She’s probably just letting her hair down a little. It’s only been a year.”
Coop remembered that time well. He’d been due to travel to Elizabeth Weston’s funeral but had, rather inconveniently, gotten himself shot. “Give her some time.”
That’s what he’d needed—longer than he’d ever imagined.
“Yeah, I know.” Ethan nodded. “Still, I feel better now you’re back. I know you’ll look out for her.”
If it had been anyone else but Ethan, Coop would have told him to hire a babysitter. But they’d had each other’s backs since they’d been partnered together as newly minted police officers, and cops didn’t let their partners down—present or past. “Of course I will.”
“Thanks man.” Ethan shot him a grateful smile. “So you get laid yet or not?”
Coop laughed. “Actually, I did. Last weekend.” Even just admitting it set his heart pounding.
“Well hallelujah and praise the Lord. I was worried you were becoming a born-again virgin.”
Coop snorted. “Like you get any more action.”
“Yeah.” He sighed. “Dating in a small town is like living in a freaking fishbowl. Easier to just not. So … you seeing this woman now?”
Coop shrugged. “I’d like to. I …” he hesitated. “I really like her. I think she might be the one.”
Ethan choked on his mouthful of beer. “Jesus, she must have been good. The sex has fried your brain.”
Coop laughed. Maybe it was a big call on such short acquaintance but the thought of being with one woman forever wasn’t something that scared Coop, unlike a lot of guys he knew. He’d always figured one day he’d find someone and have the kind of relationship his parents did.
“Here she is,” Ethan announced as he waved at someone approaching from behind and stood. Coop took a couple of fortifying mouthfuls and followed suit.
There was an instant, a flash, as Ethan pulled away from embracing his sister where the hair on the back of Coop’s neck prickled with the same eerie perception he’d had that night he’d walked into the local seven-eleven store after his shift had finished and known something wasn’t right. And then he was looking down into Tracey’s face.
A jolt slammed into his gut as if he’d been hit with fifty thousand volts from a taser. Ethan’s service-issue taser if he ever found out that Coop had slept with his little sister.
“Lace, I’d like you to meet Coop, my old partner,” Ethan said, oblivious to the cataclysmic turn of events.
Until seconds ago the worst thing that had happened to Coop was being shot by an armed robber. But this was epically worse. He’d not only fucked his best friend’s sister six ways to Sunday but she was nineteen years old.
In a strange out-of-body way Coop took her in. Gone was the make-up, the big hoop earrings, the form-fitting tank top and the skin-tight jeans. She was in loose, pastel, three-quarter pants and a cute little blouse that buttoned right up to the collar. Gone too was the wild gypsy hair, transformed into a high, girl-next-door ponytail.
She looked nineteen.
Even the look of stricken mortification, the flush of embarrassment and the silent entreaty in molasses eyes reminded him of a teenage girl about to be grounded.
Holy mother of God. He was going to hell.
Lacey recovered first, shrinking internally from the shock of seeing the man she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about all week. “Oh h-hi.”
She stuck out her hand, silently begging Coop to do the same, to keep it together. She’d been annoyed to receive Ethan’s summons. She’d only been back in Brisbane just over a week and the last thing she’d wanted to do was play the adoring little sister when she was still so angry with all her brothers for not letting her stay.
But that was nothing in comparison to the pickle she found herself in now.
Finally he took her hand and Lacey’s pulse leapt at the contact. She was reminded of how his hand had slid into hers at this very bar a week ago.
Of what had happened after.
“Nice to meet you, Lacey,” he said, his face tight, his blue eyes glacial.
“Sit, sit,” Ethan urged and she automatically folded herself into the bench seat. “Can I get you a Coke or something?”
“I’ll have a Corona,” she said, hyperaware of Coop all tense and brooding opposite her.
“Damn it, Ethan, I’m nineteen years old. I don’t want a bloody Coke. I want a beer.”
Ethan turned to Coop. “Tell her beer is evil.”
Coop shrugged. “Your sister’s right. She’s nineteen. Get her a damn beer.”
Ethan shook his head. “You’re supposed to be on my side,” he grumbled as he ambled off to the bar.
Lacey felt Coop’s glare right down to her toes. “You’re nineteen?”
She shrugged. Nothing she could say would make up for her lie. “Would you have slept with me if you’d known?”
Coop recoiled as if she’d struck him. “Of course not!”
“Well then, wouldn’t that have been a tragedy?”
He raked his hand through his hair. “Oh God,” he groaned, “I’m going to hell. And do you know how?” he demanded. “Your brother is, quite rightly, going to kill me and, then, when he personally drags my sorry ass to the fiery depth of eternal damnation, he’s going to kill me all over again.”
Lacey blinked. And they said women were prone to flights of fancy. “Don’t be dramatic.”
If anything his eyes grew even cooler as he leaned in. “Guys do not sleep with their friends’ sisters. Especially if they’re nineteen.”
Lacey shivered at the low certainty in his voice as he dropped his forehead in his palms and cradled it. “Fuck … what have I done?”
Lacey glanced over at the bar. Ethan was still waiting to place his order, his back to them. She reached across the table, placed her hand on his arm. “Coop.”
He recoiled from her. “Don’t touch me.”
Stung by his rejection, Lacey withdrew her hand as he speared her to the seat with a hostile gaze. “For God’s sake, what are you doing picking up strangers in bars, going back to their places?” he demanded, his voice low. “I know Ethan taught you better than that.”
Lacey bristled. She had a hard time reconciling this distant, angry man with the easy lover who had made her come her brains out all night. She already had three older men in her life telling her what to do—applying some sexist double standard where men got to drink and screw around but women had to be virtuous and sit on a freaking shandy all night.
Well fuck them and the horse they rode in on.
“But it’s okay for you to pick up a stranger in a bar?”
“I’m thirty-two years old, Lacey and a …”
“A what?” she demanded as Coop left his sentence hanging. “A guy?”
“Yes,” he shot back. “A guy. So shoot me for being some sexist Neanderthal prick, but I can handle myself.”
Lacey snorted at his assumption. “If you think a girl with three brothers can’t handle herself then you’re delusional.”
“Well that brother,” Coop pointed towards the bar, “doesn’t think so because I’ve just been tasked with looking out for you.”
Lacey blinked at the revelation and turned to shoot daggers at her brother. “I don’t need you looking out for me.” She saw Ethan striding towards them and glanced at Coop. “You’re not going to do something honourable like tell him about us, are you?”
The look on his face would have been comical had the situation not been so serious. “Do I look like I took a crazy pill today?” he hissed as Ethan strode the last three strides to the table.
“You’re deep in conversation over here,” Ethan said as he sat placing her drink down. “Pleased you’re getting along. I’ve asked Coop to keep a bit of an eye on you now he’s back in town.
“Yeah,” Lacey said, lips tight. “So I hear.” She took three long swallows of her beer.
Ethan looked from one to the other. “She’s pissed right?” he said to Coop.
“I don’t need a babysitter or a bodyguard.” Especially not this one.
“We’ll all feel a lot better knowing that Coop is here for you to call on if you need him,” Ethan said in his calm, cop voice that Lacey hated with a passion. He held out his hand.
“Give me your phone.”
Lacey shook her head mutinously. “No.”
“You do know I’m going to text you a dozen times a day with Coop’s number, right? It’s going to be much easier if I just put it in your contacts now.”
Lacey didn’t doubt her brother’s determination for a moment. “What makes you think I won’t delete it the second I leave here?”
“Because Coop’s a mechanic and as that ancient Mini of yours breaks down with alarming regularity you’re going to need him more than you know. Unless you can suddenly afford the cost of repairs on your meagre salary?”
She doubted Ethan would be so gung-ho if she knew Coop had already done a little tinkering under her hood, but he was right—her Sunday shift at the café barely covered her living expenses.
“Fine.” She passed her phone over.
End of Excerpt