Falling for the Marine Excerpt

Copyright © 2013 by Samanthe Beck.All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.

Chapter One

Did anything say, “Happy Birthday, Stud,” quite like black lace and handcuffs? 

Chloe Kincaid eyed her reflection in the mirror at the foot of her bed and scooted into position under the birthday banner she’d hung above her brass headboard.

The handcuff securing her right wrist to the headrail clattered as she moved. The trio of red candles burning on her dresser and the muted light from the nightstand lamp gave the room a soft, golden glow that made everything, including her, look unusually seductive. Bondage games weren’t really her thing, but she had to admit her cuffed wrist looked positively wicked, as did the black lace bra and thong she’d splurged on. Money was tight, but what the hell? One of San Clemente’s finest lifeguards had shared his raciest fantasy with her, and he deserved a memorable birthday, right?

Still, something about the picture staring back at her in the mirror seemed…off. Too tidy, she decided. With her free hand she pushed her comforter and sheet down so the bed appeared kind of rumpled—as if maybe she’d already done some naughty things, all by herself.

Her hip came into contact with a lump under her comforter. She dug beneath the covers and retrieved a light tan teddy bear.

“Sorry, RT,” she said to the plush, “Ready-Teddy” hide-a-vibe also known as her exclusive bedmate during these past twelve months, “you’re on your own tonight.”

The bear’s glassy eyes stared into hers, full of censure.

“Don’t look at me like that. It’s only one night. I promise. A quick, easy one-night stand with a cute guy who thinks I have pretty eyes. Is that so wrong?” She stretched as far as she could and shoved the bear under the bed.

Then she leaned back and considered the scene again in the mirror. Yes, rumpled sheets were definitely a step in the right direction. She used her feet to kick the sheet and blanket all the way down the bed, so they draped over the brass footrails and onto the floor. Nice.

Satisfied she had the stage properly set, she lifted one of the two flutes of champagne on her nightstand and sipped, then frowned at the time on her bedside clock as she put the flute down. Her perfect birthday surprise lacked one critical element. The birthday boy. Where the heck was—


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The ring of the phone reverberated through her tiny, one-bedroom apartment. She considered reaching for the handcuff key on her nightstand and untethering so she could rush out to the kitchen and answer, but decided to go ahead and screen the call. In a few short moments her “Leave a message,” message ended and the beep signaled the caller to speak.

“Hey, Chloe!” Troy’s voice blasted over the line, accompanied by a background soundtrack of thumping club music and chatter. The noise corrupted the peace and quiet of her apartment like a frat party. “Sorry, but I’m not gonna make it to your place tonight. Know how I thought the guys in the Beach Services Program forgot about my birthday? I was wrong. They kidnapped me and dragged me down to TJ and…fuck”—the sounds of laughter, catcalls, and cheers came over the line—“Oh God. Poppers. Jesus.” There was a low groan, and then, “No more poppers. I swear, I’m gonna hurl all over someone.” More cheers greeted that announcement. “Hey, Chlo, ’member how I told you I didn’t think Mirasol Machado liked me ’cuz whenever we worked together she never gave me the time of day? Well, check it…I think we just got married! Can you believe that shit? Holy crap, here comes the chick with more tequila shots. These assholes aren’t gonna be happy ’til I puke my guts ou—”

The dial tone echoed over the line, followed by a click and then an abrupt, rushing silence. Unbelievable. Chloe blinked at the girl in the mirror wearing sixty bucks worth of screw-me underwear she didn’t need, and then grabbed her half-empty champagne flute from the nightstand and downed the rest in one big gulp.

She won the prize for idiot of the year, going to all this trouble for a guy she’d been dating less than two weeks. Spending money she couldn’t afford on decorations and lingerie to fool her conscience into believing tonight’s festivities amounted to something more elaborate than a casual hookup. What had she been thinking? Obviously, she hadn’t been thinking.

And now, surprise, surprise, he’d flaked. She would have expected this kind of behavior from any of the US Marines she treated every day at the Camp Pendleton Massage Therapy Clinic, but Troy wasn’t military, so she hadn’t seen it coming. Before her parents had split up and dumped her on her grandma without a backward glance, she’d watched her military-to-the-core father put God and country, and anything else the Army offered, ahead of his family. The experience had convinced her never to get involved with a military man.

Now, apparently, she’d have to add lifeguard to the “Do Not Get Involved” list. But, eff-it, tonight hadn’t been about getting involved. All she’d wanted was to have a little fun with a partner for a change. Troy had seemed like a perfect candidate. Hell, he’d seemed like a party on two legs.

She put the empty flute down on the nightstand and, after a brief hesitation, picked up the second flute and downed that one too. While she couldn’t beat the convenience and, well, infinite stamina the Ready Teddy offered, an entire year was a long time to subsist solely on imagination and Duracell. She was so bored with her own company, she could barely stand it. Her body ached to play a starring role in someone else’s fantasies. RT simply couldn’t satisfy those cravings.

She put the flute back on the nightstand with a clunk. Marrying and divorcing before the age of twenty-four had taught her a few timeless lessons about the hazards of getting tied down, but she’d been more than ready to get tied-up for one night.

Then again, maybe Troy canceling was for the best. Deep down, she feared boredom wasn’t the only thing driving tonight’s plans. Did some vestiges of the needy, clingy woman she’d once been still lurk inside her, longing to be held in two strong arms, kissed by hungry lips, and drift off to sleep lulled by the sound of someone else’s heartbeat?

God, no. Surely she’d put that woman behind her by now? She’d been cultivating a different Chloe since her divorce, a carefree, no-strings-attached Chloe who didn’t rely on other people to make her feel complete.

She wove strings way too easily for someone whose personal history suggested others found her pretty dang easy to detach from. Her parents. Her husband. How many more lessons did a girl need before she gave up on the fantasy of forever?

Zero, as far as this girl was concerned, and she considered herself a healthier person for facing reality. Since the divorce, she’d worked hard on becoming emotionally independent and content with her own company. And she’d succeeded, give or take a little bedroom boredom.

Her bladder, however, definitely did not qualify as content at the moment. It demanded relief from the champagne she’d chugged. She turned and reached for the handcuff key on her nightstand, and…dang it…fumbled the little bugger. The key fell between the bed and nightstand and then clattered against something metal. Oh shit. Her stomach sank. She leaned over as far as possible and looked down. Awesome. The key had fallen into the floor vent. She couldn’t see the darn thing, much less reach it. To top off the situation, she had a Vatican’s worth of candles burning throughout her apartment, and she had to pee, like, now.

She groaned and flopped back on the pillow. Shit. Shit. Shit. The furnished apartment her agency had arranged for her here at Casa Clemente came complete with a landline and the old-school answering machine, but it was in the kitchen, which might as well have been Mars for all the good it did her now. A cell phone would be handy. Unfortunately her post-divorce budget didn’t stretch to such luxuries. The Visa bill she still struggled to pay off—a souvenir from Drew because it turned out canceling the card didn’t cancel the debt—and the signature loan she’d taken out to cover her grandmother’s funeral expenses ate up most of the extra cash she earned. No sleek, efficient iPhone to the rescue.

That whittled her options down to neighbors within shouting distance. She’d moved into her furnished apartment a week and a half ago, and the only person she knew at Casa Clemente was Mrs. Waverly, the owner/manager of the complex—a tanned-to-leather, pink-haired, sixty-something lady with sharp eyes, a quick smile, and the latest gossip on every single one of her tenants. From only a few conversations with Mrs. Waverly, Chloe knew all about the cheating wife in 2C, the unappreciative grandkids of the retired couple in 2D, and the “handsome young man” in 2B. She cringed at the idea of Mrs. Waverly rushing through the unlocked door, following the trail of condoms through the candlelit living room to the bedroom where she’d find…surprise!…her nearly naked tenant handcuffed to the bed. Imagine the earful 2B, 2C, and 2D would get about the depraved nympho in 2A. But if she remembered correctly, Wednesday was Mrs. Waverly’s bunco night, which meant assistance would most likely come from cheating wife, retired couple, or sweet young man. Jeez. Maybe she could wait until…until… Until what? Her entire apartment went up in flames from the unattended candles?

Screw that, her bladder insisted. Time to meet your neighbors.

She drew in a deep breath and yelled, “Help!”

Michael McCade climbed the stairs to his second-floor apartment, trying to concentrate on the call from his older brother Trevor, while silently cursing the pain shooting from his lower back down his leg with each step. Or maybe not so silently, because Trevor stopped talking long enough to say, “Did you just call me a fucking pain in the ass?”

“The shoe often fits…but no. I called the stairs to my apartment a fucking pain in the ass. They’re killing my back.”

“Your back is still bothering you? It’s been weeks. What happened to, and I quote, ‘A little ice and some ibuprofen, and I’ll be good as new’?”

“I was wrong. Turns out I have a herniated disc.”

“Mmm-hmm. Told you to go to the doctor right away, didn’t I?”

“Your wife told me to go to the doctor right away,” he corrected. “You told me, and I quote, ‘Good luck getting laid if they put you in a back brace.’”

“Well Kylie was right. So was I, for that matter. Are you wearing a brace?”

“No,” he grunted and used the handrails to pull himself up another step. “I’m seeing my friend Dane—”

“Dane, your beer-bonging college roommate?”

“That was over ten years ago. Nowadays he’s Dane the orthopedic surgeon. He’s giving me excellent advice like avoid stairs.”

Two tours in Iraq, one in Afghanistan, and never so much as a hangnail. But you completely jack yourself up here in the good, old US of A, on a freaking training exercise.

Now here he stood—a thirty-one year old marine in the prime of his life—navigating the stairs like a geezer.

“No flying then, I’m guessing?”

“I’m grounded.” He wasn’t allowed anywhere near a helicopter, much less the actual cockpit, until Dane, and, ultimately, Colonel Harding, his commanding officer, declared him flight-worthy. In the meantime, was there anything more useless than a helicopter pilot who couldn’t fly? Fate had a seriously fucked-up sense of humor.

“That sucks.”

“Yep.” And that’s really all there was to say. Everyone in the family knew how much he loved to fly. “I gotta go. Give my love to Kylie. Tell her I’m here for her whenever she wakes up and realizes she got the wrong McCade.”

“Sure thing, Mikey. Start holding your breath right…now.” The phone went dead.

He clicked off, smiling. It was almost too easy to get a rise out of his brother these days—Trevor was head-over-heels when it came to Kylie. And though he enjoyed rattling Trevor’s cage every once in a while, the truth was, the fly-by relationships he’d specialized in over the last several years had started to feel pointless and empty. Someone special to come home to sounded pretty damn good.

Actually, just getting home sounded pretty damn good. He stared at the last stair like a sworn enemy. His phone rang, giving him another reprieve from the uphill battle. He pulled the device out of his pocket, assuming Trevor was hitting him back with more unsolicited older brother advice, and answered with an impatient, “What?”

“That’s some nice phone etiquette right there, Emily Post.”

Dane’s familiar sarcasm flowed over the line. “Sorry, I thought you were Trevor. I’m kinda in the middle of something here. Can I call you later?”

“No. Don’t call me later. My agenda tonight involves a cute, stacked, blonde receptionist from the pediatric group upstairs in my building.”

No shocker there. Dane considered dating a sport. He attributed his success with the ladies to growing up with four older sisters and claimed the experience gave him special insights into the female psyche. Michael thought it had to do with the fact that Dane bore a passing resemblance to David Beckham. “And this affects me how?”

“Just like there is no ‘I’ in ‘teamwork,’ there is no ‘U’ in ‘my date.’ I want to keep it that way, so listen up. You’ve got an appointment tomorrow afternoon at 4:00 p.m. for a therapeutic massage at the Camp Pendleton Massage Therapy Clinic. It’s the place just outside Main Gate. Don’t be late.”

“Ah shit,” he closed his eyes and tried to block out the image of lying on a massage table while some beefy Swede pummeled him, “what happened to, maybe, you’d recommend massage?”

“You forced this on yourself when you asked me to call Harding and give him an update on your back. He asked me, point-blank, if you’d completed all the treatment I’d recommend, and did I consider you one hundred percent recovered. I had to admit no, on both counts. I told him I could keep sending you to the chiropractor for adjustments to force your spine into alignment and get that bulging disc off the nerve until the swelling subsides completely, but unless someone does the therapeutic massage work on the underlying fascia and muscles, your vertebrae will just keep springing back into their old position.”

He had a childish urge to throw the phone down. Only the prospect of the pain he’d inflict on himself in the process of leaning over to retrieve it stopped him from giving in to the impulse. “So, what you’re telling me is, I’m off flight status until I get a massage?”

“I’ve recommended a round of five, every three-to-four days. Then we’ll assess.”

“Twenty more days before I’m back in a chopper! Are you freaking kidding me?”

“I told you, Harding wants you hundred percent back to normal, or not at all. There’s no ‘well enough’ with him—he’s very conservative. Complete the treatments, stay on his good side in the meantime, and by this time next month, you’ll be back in the saddle…cockpit…whatever.”

“Massage therapy. Christ, is that it, or do I have to get a bikini wax too?”

“I’m sure you could use both, considering what a whiny little bitch you’re being about this, but since I can’t think about a dude’s bikini area without wanting to stab my eyes out, I’ll leave it to your discretion. Now say, ‘Thank you, Dane, for keeping alive my shot at flying again. You’re my hero.’”

“Yeah, you’re something all right, but ‘hero’ is not the word.”

“How about ‘trainer’ then, Saturday morning at the gym on base? I’ll come by your place at eight.”

His vertebrae wanted to say hell no to another waltz with agony conducted by sadistic Dr. Dane Anderson, complete with unending circuits of pelvic tilts, lumbar flexion, upper back extensions, and partial sit-ups, but, frankly, the exercises felt more likely to yield progress than something as passive as lying on a table while someone poked and pounded his muscles. “Eight works.”

“Try not to sound so enthusiastic. Listen, you need to get your mind off your shit for a night. Want me to call the stacked, blonde receptionist and see if she’d got a friend?”

The notion of dragging his aching body downstairs, sitting in a bar or restaurant for three hours, and then dragging his sorry ass back up the stairs sounded like a level of hell he preferred to leave unexplored.

“Absolutely not.” Then, realizing he sounded exactly like the whiny little bitch Dane accused him of being, he added, “But thanks. I appreciate the offer, and I appreciate you keeping alive my shot at getting back into the cockpit. You’re my hero. Good luck with the blonde.”

“Luck’s got nothing to do with it. I have unique insight into the—”

Michael laughed and disconnected.

He took the last step and then paused on the landing to let his protesting back settle. His arm shook a little as he wiped the sweat off his forehead. Shit, he might have to break down and take a pain pill tonight. He’d avoided using the Vicoprofen because, while the anti-inflammatory might help reduce the swelling in his herniated disc, and the narcotic might help him get some sleep, he definitely wouldn’t be cleared to fly while he took the drug.

Still, the prospect of a few pain-free hours and some actual sleep tempted—

“Help!”

He jolted upright, which necessitated stifling a cry of his own, and turned in the direction of the very loud, very female distress call. What the hell? The call sounded as if it came from the apartment across the hall from his. Mrs. W had mentioned an incoming tenant, but he’d yet to set eyes on Casa Clemente’s newest resident. The cry for help sounded again—not the raw, strained voice of someone in pain, but clearly someone in need of assistance. He hurried to the door.

“Hello,” he yelled, and then, thinking a woman, alone in an apartment, calling for help might appreciate some reassurance, he added, “This is Marine Corps Major Michael McCade from 2B. Do you need assistance?”

“Um…yes. I don’t suppose the lady who lives in 2C is around?”

Was it embarrassment or calculation he heard in her hesitation? He frowned. 2C’s husband was on a six-month float. According to Mrs. W, 2C spent most of her time at her boyfriend’s place in Oceanside.

“No. I’m the only one here. Look, did you need help or—”

“Yes! Yes…I do.”

He waited for her to say something more or to open the door. Neither happened. Somehow, he resisted the urge to smack his forehead against the doorframe in an attempt to knock some sense into himself for getting involved with what appeared to be a crazy neighbor, when all he really wanted was a double bourbon, dinner, and bed…in that order.

“Okay, then. This is just a suggestion, but I’m thinking a good place to start would be for you to answer the door so we don’t have to continue yelling through it.”

“That’s part of the problem. I can’t. I’m a bit…limited…at the moment.”

Well, shit. Casa Clemente was no fortress, but the thought of kicking the door in made his eyes want to roll back in his head. His sciatic nerve promptly vetoed the idea. “Ma’am, would you like me to call 9-1-1 for you?”

Her, “No!” practically ruptured his eardrums. “No, no,” she added in a calmer voice, and then laughed nervously. “That would cause a scene and be really…um…unnecessary. The door is unlocked. If you wouldn’t mind coming in, I promise, it’s completely safe.”

Now his eyes narrowed. This sounded weird. The last time something had sounded weird to him, his chopper’s rotor had failed, he’d managed a bumpy emergency landing and hauled a bunch of banged-up infantry troops to safety. The only lasting injury, thankfully, appeared to have been his back. Still, lesson learned. Avoid weird. “What’s your situation, ma’am?”

“My name’s Chloe Kincaid, and my situation, as you put it, is a little hard to explain. Can you just come in?” A note of desperation crept into her voice. “Please?”

The “please” got to him. “All right. I’m coming.” He turned the knob and pushed the door open.

“Great. And, ah…ignore all the—”

“Candles?” It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the dark interior, illuminated only by candles burning in little groups throughout the living room. He got a vague impression of colorful throw pillows and a fuzzy burgundy blanket on the back of the standard-issue, Casa Clemente “leather” sofa. He took a step into the apartment and something crunched under his boots. What the…? He squinted at the speckled brown Berber. A trail of small, foil squares led from the front door, across the living room, and down the hall toward what he presumed to be the bedroom. “Or is it the condoms you want me to ignore?”

“Both,” replied the slightly breathless, slightly exasperated, and—maybe this was his imagination working overtime—incredibly sexy voice. Was the voice coming from the bedroom?

“I’m back here.”

Oh yeah, definitely the bedroom. He revised his earlier assessment from “weird” to “intriguing.” A wedge of light shone through a not-quite-closed door at the end of the hall. He pushed it open, walked in, and found…holy shit…Victoria’s Secret handcuffed to the bed, under a Happy Birthday banner.

“I hate to tell you this, but it’s not my birthday. Do I still get the present?”


Chapter Two

“I’m kind of hoping you’ll settle for a beer,” the husky-voiced strawberry-blonde temptation replied. In addition to the handcuffs and two wisps of black lace not very well concealed by the pillow she hugged to herself, she wore a bright pink blush and a pained expression. Sky-wide gray eyes looked at him with a combination of relief and wariness. The vulnerability of her position hit him like a two-by-four. He could be anyone, and his intentions could be far from noble. Under the circumstances, he was glad to be wearing his fatigues, which had his last name stitched across his chest pocket and his rank insignia pinned to his collar. Hopefully it conveyed the message I’m one of the good guys. You can trust me.

“Wanna tell me how this”—he gestured to her—“happened?”

One light eyebrow arched and her mouth twitched. “Isn’t it obvious?”

“Humor me,” he said, though it was clear from the twinkling eyes that she already was.

“The guest of honor canceled this evening’s celebration at the last minute, due to extreme, Tijuana-induced drunkenness. Then the key”—she jangled her wrist in the cuff—“fell down there, into the vent.” She stretched toward the edge of the mattress and pointed between the bed and the nightstand.

The pillow she’d tucked against her rolled off and, though he willed his attention to the floor vent, his eyes said fuck that and took a snap inspection of her slim, nearly naked body.

“My tool kit is in the hall closet,” she went on, absently retucking the pillow. “I’m thinking you can unscrew the vent cover, get the key out, and unlock me.”

Those gray eyes clicked to his again. She didn’t sound particularly bent about being stood up at the last minute…but that was none of his business. The way the lace bra plumped her breasts into a ridiculously opulent distraction above the edge of the pillow? Also none of his business, but much harder to dismiss. The way the matching panties cupped her like a lover? Impossible to ignore.

Everything about her appealed to him. If he’d ordered his own personal playmate, he couldn’t have come up with a better design than what nature had so helpfully packaged into one Chloe Kincaid. He cleared his throat and mentally stepped into a cold shower. Life had already thrown him all the complications he could handle at the moment. Even if he had been in the market for a playmate—which he wasn’t—his back pretty much benched him from play.

“Mind if I move this?” he pointed to the nightstand.

“Sure. Do whatever you need to do.” She cuddled the pillow tighter, crossed her right leg over her bent left leg, and rested her left hand on her knee. The position gave her an uncomfortable I’m-holding-myself-together look totally at odds with her casual words.

He moved the champagne flutes from the nightstand to the dresser, finding a spot for them among a terrifying arsenal of girl-stuff: cosmetics, a flea market’s worth of costume jewelry, a rainbow of scarfs, and a few things women always seemed to have but he couldn’t readily identify. No doubt about it, this woman liked colorful things—and plenty of ’em.

The nightstand was heavy enough to remind him he had pain pills for a reason. Despite the warnings from his lower back, he pulled the piece out about a foot. Far enough for him to kneel between the bed and the nightstand and get a good look at the vent. Four screws secured the vent cover over a whole lotta darkness.

He liked his chances of jimmying the handcuffs open with a hairpin or a paper clip better than his odds of retrieving the key from the bottomless vent duct.

He also liked the way she smelled. With his head level to the bed, her scent surrounded and distracted him. Sweet and edible, like cinnamon and honey. He looked over at her—a mistake because, although she hugged the pillow to the front of her body, he now had an eye-level view of the side of her lace-covered breast. Out of self-defense he turned his attention to the foot of the bed and his gaze landed on her toes. A braided silver ring encircled her middle toe. Sparkly, gunmetal polish turned her toenails into little Tahitian pearls. He imagined licking his way up her body, starting with those toes and ending at her soft, pink lips, with lots of stops along the way. His stomach rumbled. Due south, another organ he’d been slightly worried about since the chopper accident sat up and took notice, and damn, it felt good. Hoping to hide both reactions, he coughed, dragged his eyes back to the vent, and shifted until his right knee rested on the floor. Keep your shit together, McCade.

“Can you get it up?” she asked.

He blinked, swiveled his head her way and collided with guileless gray eyes. She meant the key. “Affirmative,” he deadpanned, unable to resist. She rewarded him with a laugh and an eye roll.

“I was talking about the vent cover.”

“So was I, Gutter-mind. But going that route might take a while.”

“Oh.” She recrossed her legs the other way—left over right—and gave him an anxious look. “Time is kind of…of the essence.” He forced his attention away from her crossed knees, and followed her stare to the two empty champagne flutes on the dresser. Ah. The compulsive leg-crossing made sense. She had to pee.

Before he realized his own intent, he reached out and fingered one tumbling, reddish-blonde curl. “Do you have a hairpin?”

Her wide eyes and quick inhale made him worry he’d scared her by giving in to his urge to touch, but then her lips curved. “Who are you? MacGyver?”

His smile broadened, and, dang it, that felt good, too. “I’m reasonably resourceful.”

“There should be one in the bathroom drawer.” Those pretty winter-ocean eyes gleamed and she added, “I owe you a beer if you spring this cuff in the next three minutes.”

“What if I do it in two minutes?”

“Um…I’ll kiss you full on the mouth?”

A laugh rumbled up from his chest and surprised him. “Chloe, you could teach the Corps a thing or two about motivation.” He stood. “I’ll be right back.”

Her one-bedroom unit had the same basic layout as his two-bedroom, so finding the hall bath took no time at all. The small sink with cabinet resembled the one in his apartment, too, except hers looked like a makeup counter had exploded on it. Could one woman really use all this…stuff? Apparently yes, and then some, because when he pulled open the top drawer of the cabinet, more junk spilled out. He dug deep and, jackpot, found a hairpin wedged into the bottom corner.

All the spit dried out of his mouth the minute he returned to the bedroom. Chloe lay on her side, facing the handcuff. She was trying to wriggle her wrist free, and, in the process, presenting him with an absolutely stunning view of her long, graceful back, her tiny thong, and the most mouthwatering ass he’d ever pondered sinking his teeth into. A small, colorful tattoo rode the upper curve of her left butt cheek. The low lights and flickering candles made discerning the tattoo a challenge at ten paces, but by the time he reached the bedside the lines and flourishes had arranged themselves into a small bird—a hummingbird in flight.

She was a full-fledged feast for the senses…her tantalizing scent, all the colors and textures of her, from the wild cascade of tawny curls to the sexy little tattoo. His mind ran wild for a second. He envisioned climbing onto the bed, ensuring she had a good grip on the headrails, and then covering that bird with his mouth and devouring it while she bucked and squirmed and begged for more. He’d give it to her, until she screamed his name and came against his tongue so epically the only thing he’d taste for the foreseeable future would be pure, unadulterated Chloe.

“Nice tat.” His voice sounded like a rusty hinge. She looked back at him, and then her eyes dropped to her hip and her lips twisted into a smile.

“My free bird.”

He came over and sat down beside her on the bed, resisting the impulse to reach out and trace the dark blue border of the tattoo. “Free bird?”

She rolled onto her back and he leaned over her…maybe a little closer than strictly necessary…and went to work on the cuff. “Yeah. I got the ink done a few months ago to remind me how much I appreciate my freedom.”

“Well, in that case, I’m happy to report”—he popped the cuff—“you are once again free.”

She tried to sit up at the same time he leaned in to maneuver the cuff off her wrist. They collided a little. Her breath rushed out at the impact of her breasts against his chest, and he breathed her in. His mind indulged in a highly enthralling fantasy of ripping the lingerie off, hiking her knees up over his shoulders, burying himself inside her, and showing her the joys of temporary captivity.

She let loose a little moan, which might have signified she’d read his mind, but probably had more to do with the fact that he was pinning her to the mattress. “Sorry,” he said, but the word was barely a murmur.

“No worries,” she whispered back. He slowly sat up. Those endless gray eyes of hers sucked him in. A part of him knew he was absently rubbing her wrist where her attempts to pull herself out of the cuff had left a red mark. Another part of him acknowledged the heat of her hip against his thigh. But mostly, he just drowned in her eyes.

“I hate to appear unappreciative, but I—I really have to go.”

Go? He blinked. This was her apartment, wasn’t it? Oh, wait…she had to go.

“Right.” He climbed off the bed as quickly as his back would allow.

She darted past him like a black, lace comet. “Thanks. Beer’s in the fridge. Help yourself. I’ll be right there.”

When the bathroom door slammed shut, he released a breath, shifted the missile in his pants to a less prominent position, and then made his way to the kitchen. Thanks to the open floor plan, the candlelight from the living room illuminated the kitchen. He opened the fridge, twisted the cap off a Bud, and drank, pushing aside the oddly uncomfortable realization he was probably swigging Birthday Boy’s favorite beer. He popped the top on another bottle when she joined him a minute later, wearing a short, silky purple robe that did absolutely nothing to erase the image of her dangerous curves barely covered by scraps of lace.

“Better?”

“Yes, thanks,” she said, and smiled slowly as he stepped around the counter separating the kitchen from the living room and handed her the open beer. Their fingers brushed when she took the bottle from him and the casual contact got his blood pumping. “Thanks also for letting me hijack your evening with my little emergency.”

“No problem.” He felt the impact of her smile all the way to the soles of his feet, forcefully enough to have a voice in his head warning him to back off. Everything he knew about Chloe so far suggested she was an impulsive, unconventional, bundle of trouble. After bouncing around between posts and deployments in some of the hotter spots around the globe, he was ready to trade trouble for stability. Maybe even follow Trevor’s example, find a nice girl, and settle down. On top of that, his CO expected officers to set a solid example for the troops, both professionally and personally. Since Harding could put him back in a helicopter or ground him indefinitely, Michael needed to toe the line, and something told him Chloe’s specialty ran more to crossing lines, not toeing them.

“That’s very gracious of you to say, but it would have been a huge problem for me if you hadn’t stopped. You saved my sorry ass.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know about that. The Fenwicks in 2D would have heard you calling eventually and helped you out. I do know for sure one person is going to be kicking his sorry ass tomorrow.”

Her brow crinkled and her mouth tipped down into a confused frown. “Who?”

“The moron who missed out on the best birthday surprise ever.”

Her expression cleared. Then she tossed her head back and laughed, and the candlelight sent gold highlights dancing in her hair. The soft, sultry sound of her laugh grabbed him by the balls, at the same time the robe slid off her shoulder and commandeered his attention. Without seeking clearance from his brain, his hand flew out and moved the slippery fabric back into place. His internal drill sergeant spoke up again, with a short, precise order. Don’t touch. He ignored it and toyed with the smooth silk.

Her laughter died away. She looked up at him with her enormous eyes and took a slow sip of beer.

Screw it; he was only human. “Tell me something, Chloe.”

Her throat worked, and she swallowed with an audible gulp. Her pupils widened. “What do you want to know?”

“You planning to reschedule the birthday party?”

She coughed out a laugh and shook her head. “No. Tonight’s event is officially and permanently canceled.”

“Good.” Giving in to temptation, he trailed his fingers along the back of her shoulder and down her spine, stepping closer to her in the process. Her body heat seeped right through her thin robe and his built-to-withstand-anything uniform. Her eyelids drifted to half-mast and her lips parted as his hand glided past the small of her back, over her hip, and, finally, along the bottom edge of her robe. When his fingers slipped beneath the hem and circled the tattoo, her breath hitched.

He traced the smooth skin. Goose bumps rose where he touched her.

“Thanks for rescuing me,” she whispered. One little step brought her to him. She put her beer on the kitchen counter.

“Good timing on my part.” Lord, those lips of hers—all full, lush curves. The kind he could nibble on for days. They parted as she inhaled and prepared to reply. He leaned closer, despite the increasingly distant part of his brain that again said, Don’t touch.

“Under three minutes,” she murmured and came up on her tiptoes so their mouths hovered inches apart. “I believe I promised you a kiss, and I always keep my—”

He closed the last little distance between and claimed his reward. The sweet, achingly soft touch of her lips against his scorched every last cautionary thought about entertaining bundles of trouble straight out of his mind. He tangled all ten fingers into her hair and dove into the kiss.

Every part of her gave. Pliant lips parted. Soft, silk-covered breasts cushioned his chest.

He closed his fist around a handful of her red-blond curls and pulled her head back to the perfect angle. Then he sent his tongue on a tour of her mouth, stroking every part of her he could reach. The sweet, intoxicating slide of her tongue over his, the taste of her, made him hungry to taste her everywhere…her breasts, the soft, vulnerable skin below her navel, and the softer, even more vulnerable hollow between her legs.

She moaned. The hand on his shoulder tightened and the one pressed to the back of his neck urged him closer…deeper. He slid his thigh between hers, and barely stifled a groan when she ground herself against him and made a grateful sound in the back of her throat. He’d never gone from a low idle to full throttle so fast in his life. Her body shivered with need, equally out of control, and all he could think was, More.



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