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By´╝ÜSosie Frost

Charmer’s grin was too perfect and his dimples too tempting for someone pretending to be so innocent. He knew what he was after. “A gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell.”

“Then you’re worse company than I thought,” I said. “Why should I let you stick around?”

“Because a pretty girl like you shouldn’t drink alone.”

I smirked. “And a proper lady doesn’t accept drinks from strangers.”

“In that case…”

He stood. Good Lord, Charmer was tall. And built. Damn. He was gorgeous. He leaned close just to showcase his muscle stacked upon muscles. He knew how to carry it too. He was no gym-rat, and he was nothing like the coarse frat boys pumping iron and cat-calling me on the treadmill while I studied for classes. He had a gift. He actually used his strength for something other than popping a vein in front of a mirror. And he wielded that power with a poise rivaled only by his confidence to flirt with a stranger at a bar.

He motioned to shake my hand. “Let’s not be strangers.”

I offered him my palm. My cocoa complexion clashed against his skin. He was calloused, rough, like he worked with his hands. At least mine looked decent, fixed up all pretty for a wedding-turned funeral. It beat the usual—my nails gnawed into nothing with finals anxiety and family drama.

“Hi.” His voice melted like wax. “I’m Hard.”

I reached for my purse. “And I’m outta here.”

“No, wait!” He laughed, stepping in front of me. “I mean, I’m Zach Harden. But I go by Hard.”

“Of course you do.”

At least he owned up to it. “It’s just a nickname.”

“Hopefully it serves you well in thirty years.”

“Hasn’t failed me yet.”

So he thought he was cute. He was right. But I had enough cute today. After I filled out the funeral director’s template obituary, I babysat two precocious flower girls whining about not getting to be in the wedding. They needed their hair re-braided as much as their bottoms smacked, but their mothers relented and let them pitch tissues at crying family members. Needless to say, my cuteness quota for the day was maxed.

“Look, this has been fun…” I said.

Zach didn’t let me go. “Finish your drink. You look like you could use it.”

“And you better be careful with which way you’re lookin’.” I arched an eyebrow. “Last thing I need is someone telling me what to do right now. Not after the day I had.”

“That so?”

Oh, the pretty boy was testing me. Like my butt hadn’t been dragged from one end of town to the other trying to tie up my father’s loose ends. Change the flowers. Call the caterer. Find the will. Get the attorney. Dad only called me a month before the wedding to even tell me that he was getting married, the first time I talked to him in a year. Now I was the one responsible for finding the string quartet before they showed up to the hall and strummed up Brick House instead of Amazing Grace.

And now green-eyed charmer—with a nickname that probably far exceeded his reputation—thought it was funny to tease me. Worse, he acted like he wanted to hear about my day.

I wasn’t about to get consoled by a complete stranger while sitting in a bar where the Hairy Titty was the house drink. And I certainly wasn’t going to fall for his smile, no matter how genuine it seemed. Momma told me she was a fool for marrying Dad, but she wasn’t raising anyone to follow in her footsteps.

“Come on,” Zach said. “Just hang for a bit.”

It was a bad move, but I was tempted to sit. Heading home only made me nervous. I wasn’t in the mood to wallow in the few memories I had of Dad. Plus it was too hard to shed twenty-one accumulated years of guilt for holding a grudge against my father until the day he died. I never forgave him for leaving us, but he still managed to enroll me in the best schools, buy the supplies I needed, and deliver my first car.

For a paternal ATM, he was awesome. For someone who should have been at home teaching me to drive that fancy car he ordered? Not so much.

It was hard to hate a man who was never around, especially when he’d never be around again.

Or maybe it was easy.

I sat down and took the shot of whiskey. It wouldn’t do a damn thing to help me think, but at least drinking gave me a reason to not answer the cocky muscle-bound slice of Heaven who sat beside me.

I stared into the tumbler. I was supposed to be giving a toast, not a eulogy.

And, if we were being honest, I was supposed to be forgiving my father, not shrouding myself in anger for years of unspoken grievances and lost opportunities.

“Wanna talk about it?” Zach had the decency to stare at the basketball game on the television. He sipped his beer.