Crashing the Net

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Izzy could not believe her eyes.

That Neanderthal.

What was Cooper Black doing here? Other than ruining her business one big foot at a time. She turned her back on him and smiled up at Tanner Wolfe, the charismatic and overly confident young quarterback of the Seattle Steelheads.

Tanner cocked his head and leaned close, possessively stroking her neck. Izzy smiled up at him, faking interest when there wasn’t any. After all, it was her job. Tanner wasn’t Cooper, not by a long shot. Sure, he was gorgeous in a drop-your-panties-and-get-naked way, but he wasn’t her type. She seemed to prefer surly and brooding over charming and carefree.

Tanner pulled her close for a slow dance, too close, so she put her hand between them and pushed. Over Tanner’s shoulder, she spotted Cooper pacing on the outskirts of the crowd. Despite her annoyance with him, he was damn sexy when he went all caveman on her, ready to protect her from any perceived threat and throw her over his shoulder, claiming her as his own. He was one-hundred-percent male and made her feel one-hundred-percent female.

Tanner’s hands slipped to her butt, and Cooper pawed the ground like a bull ready to charge. His eyes narrowed, and he stomped toward her and Tanner, pushing guests out of the way in a single-minded effort to get to her. The look on his face didn’t exactly give the impression he was here for fun and games. In fact, he’d obviously forgotten how to shave in the past few weeks, lost the phone number of his barber, and disregarded any and all dress codes. Black tie did not mean jeans and T-shirt.

He was hot as hell and just as mad.

Regardless, Izzy plastered a welcoming smile on her face, hoping to diffuse his obvious anger. Heads turned around the crowded room and jaws dropped open. Elderly matrons of the arts stared in disbelief at the intruder with the manners of a drunken grizzly bear, even as they gazed appreciatively at the man’s fine body and rugged face. They’d be having some good dreams tonight, and so would Izzy.

But she digressed.

Cooper could not interfere in her business like this, despite the jealous streak he’d been displaying recently. He needed to get over it and get a life. Training camp for hockey started in a month; maybe he’d be less smothering once he went back to work.

Izzy stepped away from Tanner, offering the Seattle quarterback an apologetic smile. He opened his mouth to say something but she held up a hand. “Hold that thought. I’ll be back in a few. I have some business to attend to.”

Tanner frowned, as he wasn’t used to women leaving him high and horny. Well, tough. He wouldn’t be scoring with her tonight any more than he’d scored in the last game of the season.

Leaving the quarterback to find a new game, Izzy marched toward Cooper, meeting him halfway. She grabbed his arm and spun him around, her anger giving her strength, and dragged him out of the ballroom, down the hall, and into a small private alcove.

“What are you doing here?” she hissed, ever mindful their voices could carry down the hallway to anyone loitering about the ballroom entrance.

“Looking for you,” he growled right back while his gaze raked up and down her body clad in a form-fitting little black dress which revealed a tasteful amount of cleavage and bare thighs.

“Cooper, I told you I had to work tonight.”

He scowled and stepped toward her, backing her up until she hit the wall behind her. He put his big hands on either side of her face and leaned in. “I don’t like you hanging out with all these wealthy businessmen and athletes who’re salivating after you like tomcats on the prowl.”

“You are a wealthy athlete,” she reminded.

“Exactly,” he responded with a grimace.

“It’s just a job.” She stared up into his stormy blue eyes, forcing herself to stay on task and not get lost in those passionate depths.

“I have more than enough money to support you while you go back to school. You don’t need to do this job.”

“I love my job.” Izzy shook her head. She would never be dependent on anyone. After all, when you couldn’t trust your own parents to provide the bare minimum basics of food and shelter, why would you set yourself up to depend on anyone else?

“I don’t.” He glared down at her, his strong jaw set and his kissable mouth drawn in a firm line. If she kissed him right now, he’d forget about everything and the situation would be defused. Until next time. She gathered her strength and did what she had to do. For herself, her sanity, and her business.

“You, buster—” she jabbed her finger in his hard chest. “Do not get a vote.”

He ground his jaw. She cringed at the thought of what that’d do to his implants if he kept it up. “Cooper, please—”

“This isn’t working. I can’t live like this, not knowing where you are and what you’re doing.”

“You know where I am. I tell you what parties we’re crashing.”

“Yeah, but I worry about you.” Concern softened the anger in his eyes, but judging by his clenched fists, it still bubbled beneath the surface even as he fought to control it.

“There’s nothing to worry about.” Izzy sighed. She wouldn’t quit this job. Number one, she loved it. Number two, it supported her three younger sisters and their college tuitions. Number three, Cooper would not take away her ability to control her present or future.

“You don’t know these people.”

“I don’t have to know them. It’s not like I’m going to establish a relationship with any of them.”

“You did with me.” He pointed out the fact that they’d met at a party her company, the Party Crashers, had been hired to crash over a month ago.

“That was the only time that happened.” She lifted her head and glared at him. “Is that what this is all about? You don’t trust me?”

A muscle ticked in Cooper’s square, stubbled jaw, and his face hardened to stone. That was all the answer she needed.

“You don’t trust me,” she stated, no longer asking a question. Something died inside her, like a little shoot pushing up through the earth only to be frozen by unseasonably cold spring weather.

Again, nothing but a stone-faced response.

“Cooper Black, how dare you?” She jabbed her finger in his chest again, so hard this time that he winced and backed up a few steps. Good, she hoped she drew blood. She jabbed him again, not caring if she broke a fingernail.

“Well, we almost did it at a party you were paid to crash.”

Now that really pissed her off. “But we didn’t. In fact we haven’t done it yet.”

“Not for my lack of trying,” he muttered.

“What are you insinuating?” Izzy’s blood boiled. She’d refused to sleep with Cooper, even though they’d done everything but. Something held her back, and she guessed that something had to do with trust issues from both sides and his controlling He-Man ways.

For a moment, uncertainty flashed across his ruggedly handsome face, as if he’d stepped in a pile and had no idea how to clean it off his shoes.

Sensing his momentary retreat, Izzy advanced on him, both guns blazing, along with her temper. “You think just because I’m not putting out to you, I must be putting out to someone else?”

His silence said it all.

“I thought we had something special. Obviously we don’t. You are a Neanderthalic brute of epic proportions. Get out of here and let me do my job.” She vibrated with fury. How dare this man ever think that. Just because she dressed the part at these parties she crashed didn’t mean she put out to any and every man she met. Or even any man she met. In fact, it’d been so long since she’d put out, she’d probably regained her virginity.

Obviously, Cooper couldn’t let that one go. She could see him battling with some inner demon, and the demon won. She could tell by the gleam in his eyes. “You’re an uptight prude with delusions of getting your hooks into a wealthy hockey star.”

Oh, now that stung. Really stung.

She reared back, standing straighter, and fisted her hands at her sides. Those were fighting words, and she hadn’t survived—even thrived—years of neglect by absentee parents to tolerate that bullshit. “Fuck you.” It wasn’t exactly classy or eloquent, but those simple words did the job.

Being a proud man, she knew Cooper wouldn’t take her dismissal lightly. “If I leave now, we’re done.”

“We are done.” She pointed toward the bank of elevators, noticing for the first time that all three of her sisters stood several feet away gaping at the two of them. She ignored the girls. They’d talk later.

Something flashed in Cooper’s eyes, gone as quickly as it came. Sadness? Remorse? Or relief. Hell if she knew.

“Good. I was just about done with your bossiness anyway.” Giving her his broad back, he strode to the elevator. A few seconds later he was gone.

“Get back to the party,” she ordered her sisters, playing the big sister role to the hilt. The twins gratefully escaped, but Betheni hung back.

“Izzy, are you okay?”

“I’m fine; leave me alone for a few, please.”

Betheni hesitated then left for the ballroom. Izzy slumped onto the couch, trying to gather her wits about her. She had a job to do. Later she’d make sense of what just happened. Digging in her purse, she found some lipstick and reapplied it, fluffed her brunette hair, and stood.

Returning to the ballroom, she behaved as if she hadn’t a care in the world.

Inside, her heart splintered into so many pieces she’d never put it back together.

* * * *

You are a Neanderthalic brute of epic proportions.

Cooper stood on his back porch, staring out at the water and the Olympic Mountains rising in the distance as the sun rose behind him. Already it was sixty degrees outside and pretty warm for an August morning in Seattle.

He buried his fingers in his tangled hair and leaned his elbows on the railing, rerunning the events of last Saturday night over and over in his mind for the millionth time.

Was Neanderthalic even a word? He’d failed at spelling but even he didn’t think it was a real word.

But hell, that woman could chew ass.

Now the epic proportions part he liked, and it fit. Not that they’d ever gotten far enough that she’d sampled those proportions, except with her mouth.

Oh, fuck. He groaned at the thought.

He liked the brute tag, too. He was a bad-ass hockey player after all and being a brute went with the territory. Yet she’d wielded that particular sword to cut him deeply, not stroke his ego.

And he was bleeding all right, and not just his supposedly fragile male ego.

What he didn’t like was being dressed down in front of her sisters, as their mouths hung open in shock while she ripped him new ones in places he didn’t think would rip.

They had.

To shreds.

And he’d done the only thing a stubborn, pride-filled brute would do. He lashed out like a wounded animal, called her an uptight prude with delusions of getting her hooks into a wealthy hockey star. Oh, crap, then all hell broke loose, and he retreated like a soldier knowing when the odds were against him. He’d regretted the words the minute he’d said them, but pride wouldn’t let him take them back, and he doubted Izzy would either.

So for his next act as a pigheaded-to-the-point-of-stupidity man, he’d left and never looked back, never called, never apologized, never did anything. Instead he re-lived the moment in his head over and over until he wanted to find a secluded mountaintop and holler at the top of his lungs.

That’d been five days ago. Hey, he wasn’t counting but math happened to be his strong suit, and he had a memory for dates. He also had a memory for Izzy, for her seductive perfume, her sweet smile laced with sexy wickedness, for her long legs that tantalized him in his dreams. For her everything.

He’d been an idiot. It wasn’t like him to be so jealous and out of control. But Izzy did something to him, and he couldn’t think straight when it came to her. He never should’ve gone there, but he’d done it anyway, because this damaged part of him buried deep inside couldn’t fathom that she wasn’t just like all of the other women he’d fallen in love with since junior high.

His mother always said that he knew how to pick ’em, and he guessed he did. It didn’t matter how many times he tried to convince himself that Izzy was different, that old doubt had crept in, and his insecurities when it came to women crept up on him and hit him over the head with a baseball bat, leaving him bruised, beaten, and crazed, like a wounded tiger.

Shit.

Why couldn’t he be more like his best buddy Cedric, who’ve loved them once and left them? Not Cooper, he pictured a long-term relationship with every one of his girlfriends, while they used him as a stepping stone and cheated on him the first chance they could get.

His last serious girlfriend had taken him for everything she could get monetarily, sold all the sordid deets of their affair to any gossip site that’d pay her money, and screwed around on him with a country music star. He’d thought he was in love with her, and she’d played him for a fool until he’d returned early from a game because of an injury and found her screaming her lungs while humping a stranger in Cooper’s own bed. After he’d booted them out, he’d thrown the mattress off the second floor balcony into the pool below.

That’d been two years ago. He promised himself he’d never journey that road again, yet he’d started down it with Izzy.

Some guys never learned. Cooper didn’t want to be some guys. He was better off without her, better off without a serious woman in his life, especially one who got under his skin like she did. Hell, he’d never been the jealous type, never been five kinds of possessive—not like he’d been with her.

Izzy brought out the worst in him. He didn’t need that. He was bad enough without a woman’s assistance.

He needed a nice woman like his mother, quiet and agreeable yet strong, able to hold down the fort and stay unwaveringly faithful while his dad was away for long tours of duty, and willing to relinquish control when he returned. His parents were the perfect match, and until he found it himself, he’d stay single. Izzy was so not that woman. She had opinions for her opinions, did her own thing, and had to have everything her way. A little like him.

Joker, his half black, half white cat, rubbed around his legs. Cooper absently petted his silky fur. “Be glad you don’t have to worry about women, female cats, whatever they’re called.” He thought for a moment. “Pussies?” He almost laughed.

Joker stared at him and blinked, not finding his joke funny and giving him that look cats give an inferior being.

Joker might be right. At least, in this instance.