Authors: Victoria Vane
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Copyright Â© 2015 by Victoria Vane
Cover and internal design Â© 2015 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover design by Dawn Adams/ Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover photo by Claudio Marinesco
Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systemsâexcept in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviewsâwithout permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.
P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410
Fax: (630) 961-2168
For John, my true-life romance hero
Mojave Desert, Southern California
Lying on his belly behind an outcropping of rocks, Reid squinted into the scope of his rifle. He was sweating like a pig in his dirt-encrusted ghillie suit and didn't even want to
about how he smelled after three days in hundred-plus temps. He shifted his body. His legs were numb from hours of observation, but he still felt the gravel chewing through the suit and into his skin.
“You got plans after this,
?” asked his spotter, Rafael Garcia. They'd met during basic eighteen months ago and had done two tours together. Six months after returning, they'd both earned the coveted Scout Sniper hog's tooth they proudly wore around their necks.
“Nothing special,” Reid answered. “You?”
“Oh yeah. Big plans, considering this is our final weekend of freedom and the last chance to score some ass. You need to come along this time.”
Reid squinted through his riflescope at the village below where the USMC had re-created a near-perfect model of their mission theater, complete with hundreds of Arabic speakers who wandered the streets and haggled in the staged marketplace. It was quiet below; maybe too quiet.
“No can do, Raf. I've got phone calls to make and a ton of shit to take care of before we deploy.” In truth, he was still licking his wounds.
What pissed him off most wasn't so much getting dumped, as he'd half-expected that, but her chosen method. That's what really sucked. Rather than a letter or even a phone call, she'd sent a Dear John text on New Year's Eve:
Can't wait for u anymore. :( So sorry Reid. Take care.
After two years together, she hadn't even allowed him the satisfaction of tearing up a letter. Five months later, he still wasn't over it. After seeing so many guys dumped during deploymentsâand now having experienced it himselfâhe'd banished any thought of women from his mind.
,” Garcia cajoled. “You've still got all next week to take care of that shit. You gotta get some while the getting is still good. We're looking at eight straight months of
Jacket?” Reid translated with a frown.
“No, man.” Garcia grinned, fisting his hand and mimicking jacking off.
“You speak English as well as I do. Why can't you just use it?” Reid asked.
“You're not in Wyoming anymore. You need to learn some Spanish. Hispanics are the fastest growing minority. Especially here in SoCal. Who knows? We may even outnumber you
before the end of the century. Just think of it as broadening your cultural horizons.”
“Yeah? Well, I think my cultural horizons are gonna expand real soon, considering where we're headed.”
over there will kill you for touching their women. Shit, they don't even let you look at them. For the next eight months, we'll all be doing
Garcia was right. The coming months would be almost monastic. No sex. No booze. A supreme test of both celibacy and abstinence. Most of the grunts would spend the next week drinking 'til they puked and fucking anything that moved. He didn't judge, but that didn't mean he wanted to be part of it.
“Tell you what,
,” Garcia continued, as he raised his binoculars, “if you go this weekend, I'll even take you someplace where your cowboy ass will feel right at home.”
“In Southern California?”
“Yeah. We have rednecks in
out here too.
,” Garcia swore softly. “Insurgent sighted at two o'clock. He's got an RPG shouldered.”
“Fuck. Can't see him.”
This was the final test of a grueling, sleep-deprived seventy-two hours, and he was about to fail. Reid pulled back from his scope to blink the dust out of his eyes, then scanned for his target again. “Sighted,” Reid confirmed with relief. “Got the son of a bitch in the crosshairs.”
He's already taking cover. Looks like he's going to launch from behind that concrete wall.”
“The hell he is.” At twelve hundred yards, it was the longest shot Reid had ever attempted, but his bipod supported the deadliest weapon he'd ever fired. The M82A3 with fifty-caliber rounds could certainly handle the distance and even a concrete wall. Hell, it could probably take out a fucking tank from a mile away.
“Wind call?” he asked.
“Steady at seven miles per hour. No cross breeze,” Garcia replied.
Reid doped his scope.
“Push it left point two,” Garcia instructed.
“You sure about that?” Reid had estimated point three. He was rarely off, but Garcia knew his shit. He'd proven to be the best spotter in their class.
“Yeah, I'm sure. You gotta trust me.” Garcia echoed his own thoughts, but Reid was accustomed to relying on his instincts. It was hard to turn that over to someone else. “Tell you what,” Garcia continued, “if you miss the mark, you're off the hook. If you hit, you're the designated driver.”
To any other guy that kind of bet might provide incentive to miss, but Garcia knew him too well. Reid took pride on
missing a shot and had an entire trophy room of big game back in Wyoming to prove it.
“All right by me.” Reid made the necessary adjustment and honed in once more on his target, a silhouette behind a concrete wall that stood over half a mile away.
shot. One kill.
The scout sniper mantra. It was time to take it.
Reid inhaled slow and deep. Exhaling, his finger tightened on the trigger. He held the next breath for a three count and then slowly and deliberately squeezed. The recoil rammed his right shoulder. The discharge blasted his ears. Three seconds later, half the concrete wall disintegrated before their eyes.
” Garcia lowered his spotting scope with a grin. “That thing's a fucking cannon. So, are we gonna take a taxi or do you wanna drive?”
“I don't know why I let you drag me here. You know as well as I do that I'm gonna hate this place.”
Yolanda pouted. “C'mon,
. When was the last time you had any fun? You've had your nose buried in your books for months, and now you're gonna be working all summer in the middle of nowhere. Just give it a chance, OK?”
“There's plenty of other places we could have gone besides a redneck club,” Haley groused.
“But this place has the biggest dance floor in California. Four thousand square feet to shake your booty.”
“You're the dancer, not me.” The club scene wasn't Haley's thing. At all.
“Don't be such a wet blanket. It'll be fun.”
Haley cast a disparaging eye over the line of girls in their cowboy boots and ass-squeezing Daisy Dukes. “The place is a bit testosterone-challenged, don't you think?”
Yolanda laughed. “Don't worry about that. In a couple of hours, it's gonna be swarming with horny marines.”
“Great. Do you ever think of anything else besides partying and guys?” Haley rolled her eyes.
“You're the one who mentioned testosterone,” Yolanda said, grinning.
Although they'd been best friends since junior high school, she and Yolanda had vastly different priorities. Haley didn't even try to keep up with Yolanda's revolving-door love life.
“Rarely.” Yolanda winked at her. “There's a lot more to life than books, Haley, but don't take my word for it. It's time you discover for yourself.”
“What's the point?” Haley argued. “I don't have time to date.”
“Who says anything about dating?” Yolanda replied. “We're just here to have a good time, right? It doesn't have to lead to anything. Look,” Yolanda continued, “if you don't want to be accosted by horny marines, just stay out on the floor. You don't even need a partner. They play mainly line dances here, and most of those guys are too macho to line dance.”
“I'm just going to make an ass of myself.”
“It's why we came early,” Yolanda countered. “So you can take advantage of the lessons. If you don't catch on,
They'll mix it up later with some freestyle hip-hop. C'mon. At least give it a chance. It'll be fun.”
“Yeah, barrels of fun,” Haley mumbled.
They moved slowly up the line.
The big, bald, unsmiling bouncer held out his hand. “ID.”
“You'd think they'd be a bit friendlier,” Haley muttered as both girls fished out their wallets.
Yolanda presented her license and promptly received an over-twenty-one bracelet.
“Pay to the right,” he said. “Next.”
Haley received a scowl when she presented her ID. “Put out both hands.”
She complied and got a big black “X” on the back of each with a Sharpie. Great. If she wanted ink on her body, she'd have gotten a tat.
“We enforce the law,” he warned. “Try to drink, and we'll boot your ass. Pay to the right.”
She stepped to the counter already feeling like a felon.
“Twenty bucks,” the cashier announced without even looking up.
Haley presented her debit card.
The woman shook her head. “Cash only.”
“Cash? Who carries cash anymore?”
“No cash. No entry.”
“Just a minute. Let me find my friend.” Haley searched the crowd for Yolanda, but she'd already gone inside.
“You're holding up the line.”
“But I don't have anyâ”
“I got it.” A soft, whisky-smooth baritone sounded from behind her.
Haley spun around to meet a solid wall of chest. Her gaze tracked north of the button-down western shirt to meet a pair of sky-blue eyes shadowed by a well-worn Stetson. Built like a rock, with dimples to boot, this tall cowboy stirred interest in places she'd ignored for a very long time.
He stepped up to the cashier, flipped his wallet open, and handed the woman two twenties.
“I'll pay you back as soon as we get inside,” Haley blurted. “I have a friendâ”
Blue Eyes shook his head. “It's no big deal. I got it. If it bothers you that much, you can pay me back later on with a dance.”
“Thanks for the easy terms, but I'm not much of a dancer.” Haley's mouth stretched into an involuntary smile. He really was hot, and a charmer too.
His answering smile morphed into a crooked grin revealing even, white teeth. The night was starting to look up. Her gaze tracked to his blue eyes again. Way up. She'd never gone for that type before, but when he gazed down at her with a heart-skipping grin stretching his mouthâ¦
“That's a bit of a relief actually,” he said. “I manage a passable two-step, but that's about the limit of my repertoire.” He nodded to the gap that had broadened between them and the door. “Wanna go inside now?”
Haley tensed under the sudden contact of his big, warm palm on her lower back. It was a light touch that still set every nerve ending on alert. Discomposed by her own response, she fought the instinct to pull away. Forcing a breath, she willed herself to relax, and let him guide her toward the door.
Once inside, he offered his hand. “I'm Reid.”
She eyeballed him anew. A handshake? Was he for real? “You're not from around here are you?”
“No, ma'am.” His annoyingly disarming grin lingered. She didn't trust how easily she responded to it, to him. “Born and raised in Wyoming.”
“Wyoming? So you're the genuine article and not one of those jokers?” She inclined her head to the throng gathered around the mechanical bull.
He shook his head with a scoffing sound. “I earned my spurs on the real thing.”
She glanced down at his boots, expecting to see them.
He chuckled. “I don't wear 'em unless I'm ridin'.”
“So are you going to show them how it's done?”
“I got nothing to prove. Besides, there's no comparison. A mechanical bull can't stomp you into the dirt or plant a horn in your ass.”
“Are you working on one of the ranches out here?”
“Nope. I've hung it all up for the U.S. Marine Corps.”
?” she repeated in dismay.
“Yup. Corporal Reid Everett of the Third Battalion First Marines.”
Damn. Damn. Damn.
Why did the only guy she'd taken any interest in since God knows when have to be a marine? The revelation instantly snuffed out any flicker of interest. A potential fling with a hot cowboy was one thing, but a jarhead was completely out of consideration.
“Nice meeting you, Reid.” She turned away.
He laid a hand on her arm, his brows meeting in a subtle frown. “Not quite the reaction I'd expectedâ¦”
“My father was a marine,” she explained.
“So I'm told,” she responded, tight-lipped. “I never knew him. I'm going to find my friend now.”
“Wait a minute. Wha'd I say?” He looked confused and maybe even a bit hurt, like she'd locked his wheels up and sent him skidding.
“It's not what you said. It's what you
They were all just a bunch of horny dogs. Her own father had been one of themâimpregnating her mother, never to be heard from again.
The grunts from Camp Pendleton had an especially long and well-earned history. She'd even done a research study on it for one of her college classes. Since the USMC established their base in 1942, the number of illegitimate births within a one-hundred-mile radius of the base had skyrocketed nine months after every major troop deployment. The data was undeniable.
certainly didn't apply to the women they left behind.
“I'm not into marines, Reid. But don't worry, there are plenty of women here who would be more than eager to give you a memorable pre-deployment send-off.”
Not daring to look back, Haley made a brisk retreat.
* * *
Reid stared after the petite blonde in consternation. Although he'd arrived without the slightest interest in getting laid, that was before he'd eyed her. She seemed so different from all the rest. Reserved. Almost aloof. Dressed in a pale yellow sundress with a long, loose braid down her back, she'd stuck out like a sore thumb compared to the others in their belly shirts, miniskirts, and booty shorts.
He'd wondered what all that gold silk would look like loose and kissing the dimples of her ass. He shook his head in mild disappointment. Guess he'd never find out.
” Garcia appeared at Reid's side with two bottles of Dos Equis and a shit-eating grin. He offered one of the long necks. “Who was that hot little
“Dunno.” Reid accepted the beer with a grimace. “Never got her name.” He still couldn't figure her abrupt about-face. She'd begun to soften toward him, only to turn frigid as ice in the blink of an eye. “I gathered she's not partial to jarheads.”
“Then best cut your losses, cause you sure as shit aren't going to score there. Maybe you should try a Chicana? Just pick one and ask her to slow dance. There're plenty of hot little
on that floor who'd go for that six-three frame and pretty-boy face.”
Reid took a swig of beer. The dance lessons had finished with a manic performance of “Cotton-Eye Joe.” The lines broke up with dancers dispersing toward the various bars.
“Here's your chance, bro. All you gotta do is offer her a drink. I'll even teach you to say it in Spanish:
Reid eyed Garcia with suspicion. “I thought
was âto eat.'”
“Eat, drink.” Garcia shrugged. “It's all the same in Spanish.”
“I'm not falling for it, Garcia. I've been around you long enough to have a pretty good notion of what
“Hey man.” Garcia raised his hands. “Just doing you a favor. That phrase is sure to come in handy for you one day.”
“I appreciate your concern for my dick,
, but I'm really not interested in chasing tail. Blonde or Chicana. I'm perfectly happy to leave the field open, chill with a couple of beers, and shoot some pool.”
But the only balls I'm interested in are right here.” He cupped his crotch with a smirk.
The blare of hip-hop music drew their attention back to the floor. Couples were already pairing for some up-close freak and grind, while a few girls were twerking in groups.
Look at that ass, man.” Garcia gestured to a curvy brunette. He upended his bottle, emptied it in one long swallow, and then handed it to Reid. “Target sighted,
. Time to engage.”
* * *
Haley didn't know why she'd let Yolanda drag her to the club. She didn't have time for guys. She was far too busy with work and school to even think about them. Or had been. Until the cowboy. He'd definitely made her
, but her budding infatuation died a premature death the moment he'd declared himself a leatherneck. Maybe she wasn't being fair, but the deck was firmly stacked against him.
She already wanted to leave, but Yolanda had driven. Unless her friend chose someone else to take her home tonight, she'd be stuck here until closing. Haley looked around the club with increasing dismay. She hated dancing and was surrounded by marines.
She scouted the dance floor and spotted Yolanda holding up her hair and doing a body roll, sandwiched between two guys. Maybe she'd be driving herself after all. By the look of things, Yo was gonna get a ride of
Yolanda spotted her and waved frantically, beckoning Haley to join her and the two guys. Haley answered with a sharp headshake. If she was going to be stuck here all night, she really needed a drink. She formed a fist with her thumb raised to her lips, the universal drink sign. Yolanda nodded acknowledgment and then ground her booty into her new partner.
Haley considered the acetone wipes Yolanda had shoved into her purse. A few minutes of scrubbing in the bathroom would erase the black marks on her hands. She weighed the consequences. If she got caught, she'd get tossed out on her ass. It was definitely worth the risk.
Moments later, Haley exited the restroom, hands thoroughly cleansed of black marker. She then discovered an ATM at the back of the club and whipped out her debit card. After collecting her cash, she headed for the nearest bar, only to be intercepted by four different guys sporting buzz cuts. She rolled her eyes. More marines. It wasn't too hard to brush them off
, but the night was early and they weren't fully tanked.
She could really use that drink, but the bartenders would ask to see her bracelet before taking an order. With her friend on the floor, her only option was to ask one of the grunts to buy the drink for her. Opting for the devil she knew, the cowboy, Haley scouted the bar. At least she had the excuse of paying him back. She had enough cash to cover her debt and still buy a couple of cocktails. She found him a few minutes later shooting pool with a cadre of his leatherneck buddies.
“Hey, cowboy. I have something for you.” She slapped the twenty on the table where he was setting up his first shot.
Her unintended innuendo was met with silence as his baby blues darted up from the table to meet her gaze. The rest of the group eyeballed her up and down with open interest, making her feel like she'd entered a wolf's den.
She bit her lip, wishing she'd said something else. “I-I mean I found an ATM. I can pay you back now.”