Main As Hot as it Gets

As Hot as it Gets

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Year:
2014
Publisher:
Samhain Publishing, Ltd.
Language:
english
ISBN 13:
9781619221338
Series:
Out of Uniform
File:
EPUB, 303 KB
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Read all the warnings beforehand! This book is definitely erotica and not every reader might be comfortable with everything that happens in the steamy scenes. I prefer books with a bigger focus on plot, so this book wasn’t quite right for me in that sense. But that’s okay! Elle has other great books!
07 September 2021 (09:59) 

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Dedication

To all the fans of the Out of Uniform series—every book has been for you, and this last one is no different. Your enthusiasm and support for this series has made it a joy to write, and I appreciate all the lovely words and wonderful feedback I’ve received from you. Thank you for taking this journey with me. You guys rock!





Chapter One

Mia Weldrick could think of a hundred better ways to spend a Saturday morning. Sleeping in, maybe. Eating breakfast at the diner across the street from her apartment. Jogging. Reading one of the gazillion unread books gathering dust on her shelf.

But she wasn’t doing any of those things. Nope, because she was too busy trying to find the cell phone she’d accidentally buried in Tom and Sarah Smith’s tulip bed yesterday.

“Oh, for the love of Hey-zeus,” she grumbled to herself. “Where are you, motherfucker?”

She desperately hoped her little brother Danny hadn’t gone back to sleep after she’d roused him and ordered him to start calling her phone in precisely twenty minutes. She was going to flip the fuck out if she lost all her contacts. Unlike smarter and more practical people, she didn’t have a backup list of passwords and phone numbers—everything was in her phone, which meant she couldn’t afford to lose it.

Stifling a sigh, Mia scooted over a few inches and lowered her head to the yellow tulips. A sweet flowery scent filled her nose, but no sound reached her ears.

Well, except for the loud throat clearing that suddenly echoed from behind her.

She swiveled her head and instantly spotted the source of the noise. He was obviously Tom and Sarah’s neighbor, judging by the rolled-up newspaper in his hand and the serious case of bedhead he was sporting.

“Everything okay, sugar?” he called out.

Oh boy. He had a Southern drawl. That upped his hotness factor by a million, though even without the accent the guy was a perfect ten. Messy light-brown hair, whiskey-colored eyes, a chiseled jawline. And his body wasn’t a pain to look at either—it was muscular but lean, ; long legs encased in faded blue denim and defined biceps poking out of a wrinkled white wifebeater.

“Not really,” she called in response. “Hey, you mind if I borrow your ears, sugar?”

He raised his dark eyebrows. “Beg your pardon?”

“Come over here and help me listen.”

The dumbfounded look he flashed her made her want to laugh. She knew she sounded like a total wacko, but she really could use his help. She had just a little over an hour to find her phone, go home to change and hightail it over to the sandwich shop where she worked on the weekends.

“Can I ask what we’re listening to?” her dark-haired stranger inquired when he reached her.

Mia tilted her head back in order to meet his gaze. “Jeez Louise,” she blurted out. “You’re ridiculously tall.”

Her stranger grinned. “Maybe you’re just ridiculously short.”

“I’m five-four. That’s average height.” Her forehead was starting to sweat, so she pulled off her baseball cap and shoved a strand of damp hair off her face. “How tall are you?” she asked curiously.

“Six-five.”

“Like I said, ridiculously tall. I’m talking to a giant. Do you play basketball?”

“Nope. Do you?”

“Sure, I shoot hoops every morning before work.”

“For real?”

A laugh flew out. “No, not for real. You actually believed me?”

Before he could answer, she gestured to the other side of the flowerbed. “Anyway, go over there. Tell me if you hear anything.”

To his credit, he didn’t question the command. He simply crossed the freshly mowed grass with long strides and knelt down in front of the flowers. “What am I supposed to be hearing?”

“Well, if my brother is repeatedly dialing my phone like I ordered him to, then you should be hearing the faint strains of A-ha’s ‘Take On Me’. I’m really into ’80s pop,” she said in a self-deprecating tone.

Her stranger eyed her for a moment, before understanding dawned in his gorgeous eyes.

“Wait a sec—you buried your phone in the dirt?”

Mia sighed. “Not on purpose. It must have slipped out of my pocket when I was planting yesterday. Hazard of the job.” She flopped down onto her knees. “Now, hush. I’d like to find my phone sometime this century. I drove all the way back here this morning and I have stuff to do today.”

From the corner of her eye, she saw his big body curling as he bent over the dirt. She had to give him credit—he was definitely being a good sport about this insanity.

And gosh, he was cute. She couldn’t stop taking peeks at him, so many peeks that she finally had to force herself to wrench her eyes away.

“Over here,” he called a minute later.

As relief flooded her body, Mia bounded over to him with a spade in hand. She started digging in the spot he indicated, then stuck her hand in the moist soil and felt around for the phone. Her fingers connected with something hard and solid, the vibrations accompanied by her ringtone tickling her palm.

She triumphantly pulled out the iPhone, brushed dirt off the screen protector, and glanced at her savior with utter delight. “Hells yeah! We did it!”

He seemed to be fighting a laugh, but she didn’t care how crazy or silly she sounded. He’d just saved her entire day with his assistance.

The phone was still blaring out her favorite ’80s song with her brother’s number flashing on the screen, so she quickly answered the call.

“Hey, Danny, it’s me. I found it.”

Irritation laced her brother’s voice. “I’m so happy for you, dum-dum. Can I go back to sleep now?”

“Call me a dum-dum again and I won’t bring home any breakfast.”

“Don’t care. I’m not hungry. I’m tired. You know, because someone rudely dragged me out of bed at eight o’clock on Saturday morning.” He paused. “Are you coming back here before work?”

“Yeah.”

“Fine. I guess you can bring me something to eat then.”

She choked back a laugh, not surprised by his complete one-eighty. Tired or not, teenage boys had voracious appetites, and at sixteen Danny ate like a damn horse. Her weekly grocery bill was proof of that.

“A food gesture will totes make me forget about being woken up today,” he added. “But I swear, Mia, if you lose your phone one more time, I’m gonna kick your ass.”

“Yeah, whatevs, dude. I’d like to see you try.”

“I’ll try and succeed,” he declared.

“Uh-huh. ’Kay. See you soon.”

She was smiling as she hung up. “Little brothers are such a pain in the ass,” she told her waiting stranger.

“Trust me, I know. I have a younger sister and she used to be a real pest. How old is your brother?”

“Sixteen. He can be a total shit sometimes, but for the most part, he’s a good kid.”

The man in front of her slid his hands into the pockets of his faded Levis. He filled out those jeans nicely, she noted. She was ridiculously tempted to ask him to do a little spin so she could check out his ass.

He’s not a piece of meat, Mia.

A sigh lodged in her throat. Nope, he wasn’t a piece of meat. And even if he was, she didn’t have time to indulge. Her chaotic life didn’t allow room for tall, handsome hotties who looked spectacular in a pair of Levis.

“So you’re doing some work for Tom and Sarah?” he asked.

“Yep. But the job’s all done, actually,” Mia replied. “Sarah didn’t want anything fancy, so it didn’t take long to finish everything up.”

The disappointment on his chiseled face was unmistakable, but his tone remained friendly as he stuck out his hand. “I’m Jackson Ramsey, by the way. I live next door.”

“Mia Weldrick. And I’d shake your hand but mine is all covered with dirt.”

“I don’t mind getting dirty every now and then.”

Mia’s breath hitched as he moved closer, a grin tugging on his lips. When he took her hand, heat suffused her cheeks, burning hotter when she registered the naughty undertones of that remark.

“Was that a line?” she demanded.

“Was what a line?”

“You know, the whole ‘I like it dirty’ thing. Was that supposed to get me all tingly and weak-kneed?”

Because it worked.

Jackson laughed, a deep, sexy sound that rippled between them. “I didn’t say I liked it dirty. I said I didn’t mind it. And no, it wasn’t a line.” He was smirking as he met her eyes. “Why, did it get you tingly and weak-kneed?”

“Nope.”

She took a step toward her truck, turning her head just in case her eyes revealed the dishonesty of her response. She was feeling tingly. Her entire body pulsed with a strange rush of heat, all because of this man’s proximity. She hadn’t experienced a spark of attraction to anyone in months, maybe years, and she’d forgotten what it even felt like. But the symptoms were definitely hitting her hard at the moment.

“Would you like to have dinner with me sometime?”

The request was gruff and came out of nowhere, bringing a pang of agitation to Mia’s stomach.

“Oh boy,” she said with a sigh.

“‘Oh boy’?” He smiled at her again. “Is that how you respond to all your dinner invitations?”

“No. But that’s because I don’t get a lot of them,” she confessed. “I never go out, which means I don’t meet a lot of guys. Honestly, I’m unprepared for this.”

“Doesn’t require much prep, sugar. A yes or no would do the trick.”

She murmured another “Oh boy”, torn between lying and being brutally honest. In the end, honesty won out.

“Okay, I’m going to lay it all on the line,” she told him. “You’re wicked hot, and I’m totally digging the height thing. It makes me feel dainty.”

He chuckled. “All right…”

“But I don’t want to have dinner with you.”

“I see.”

The visible disappointment in his eyes had her hurrying on. “It’s nothing personal. I bet you’re a really awesome guy, and that Southern drawl is definitely a bonus, but I don’t have time to go out on dates. I have a gazillion jobs and a teenage boy to raise.”

“Your parents aren’t in the picture?”

Mia swallowed the bitterness that rose in her throat. “Nope, it’s just Danny and me. Which is why dating is the last thing on my mind right now, and probably won’t be until Danny graduates. So even though I’m flattered, I’m gonna have to pass.”

Honest-to-God regret washed over her, which was weird because she’d truly meant every word she’d said. She didn’t have time to date. Most days she wolfed down her meals in the company truck between jobs. And she was usually in bed by ten o’clock. When did she have time to get dolled up and share a nice dinner with someone other than her little brother?

The grim reality of her life only bummed her out, so she quickly pasted on a smile and took a step toward her pickup. “It was nice meeting you, but I’ve got to skedaddle now.”

Jackson looked ready to protest, but she didn’t give him the chance. She simply hopped in the truck and offered a little wave, then drove off before she changed her mind and accepted his invitation.

But she couldn’t. She wasn’t interested in dating, and as hot as Jackson was, she didn’t want a fling with him either. Sex was way overrated. It was actually kind of boring, if she were being honest. So yeah, dinner with a cute guy who called her “sugar” wasn’t in the cards.

Sadly, it was just another one in the long line of sacrifices she was forced to make in her life.





“Let me get this straight,” Seth Masterson said in bewilderment. “You want to pay for a gardener to fix up our yard.”

Jackson leaned back in the comfortable wicker chair and rested his bottle of Bud Light on his jean-clad knee. “I sure do.”

“Because you have a thing for the gardener.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Even though you only talked to her for like five minutes.”

“Yep.”

“You’re insane, Texas.”

He didn’t blame Seth for looking so confused. Jackson knew he was going to a helluva lot of trouble to see Mia again, and it sounded incredibly nuts when you said it out loud, but for the life of him, he couldn’t let it end the way it had—with the first woman he’d connected to in eons driving away from him.

For the past couple months, he’d been striking out left and right when it came to the ladies. His friends’ matchmaking attempts had resulted in some of the most disastrous encounters Jackson had ever experienced, and last night had been the final straw. He’d come home to find one of his blind dates naked in his bed, mistook her for an intruder, and almost shot the poor woman with his nine mil. It had been the icing on the crappy cake he’d been eating for months now, and then, just when he’d given up on women altogether, he’d met Mia.

Gorgeous, sarcastic, down-to-earth and most of all, normal. So maybe he was veering toward borderline stalker territory here, but could anyone really blame him for wanting to get to know the woman?

“I think it’s sweet,” Seth’s wife said as she stepped into the small backyard of the Mastersons’ Coronado home.

Jackson glanced at Seth. “See,” he said smugly.

“She’s only saying that because she wants someone to come and clear out that jungle,” Seth retorted, jabbing a finger at the overgrown yard.

“That’s not true,” Miranda protested. “I really do think it’s wonderful that Texas finally met someone he likes.”

“It is about time,” Seth said grudgingly. “After all those horror-movie dates, I guess you deserve it, dude.”

Miranda glanced at the two chairs occupied by the men, then sighed. “We need to buy more chairs,” she informed her husband.

In response, Seth patted his thigh in invitation, and his wife wasted no time settling in his lap, her long, dark hair cascading over one shoulder and onto Seth’s bare arm.

As his buddy rested a hand on Miranda’s hip and stroked absently, Jackson tried not to let his eyes linger on the couple’s visible intimacy. But dang it, he wanted what they had.

He was sick and tired of being single. All his friends had found the women of their dreams, and what did he get? Naked nutcases who broke into his house, and a sore right hand from jackin’ off every night.

Well, it was time to change that. He didn’t know if Mia was the one, but he dang well knew he wanted to see her again. And he was confident that if she spent just a little more time with him, she’d change her mind about her no-dating thing and go out with him.

“I still insist on paying for half of the gardening,” Miranda spoke up, interrupting his thoughts. “We don’t want to take advantage of you.”

Jackson waved a hand. “Don’t even think about it, sugar. I never got to give you a wedding present because you two a-holes decided to elope, so this is my chance to right the wrong.”

She looked ready to argue, but fortunately, two dark-haired tornadoes swirled onto the scene before she could get a word out.

Sophie and Jason, Miranda’s seven-year-old twins, burst out of the sliding door with a degree of energy that made Jackson chuckle. He had no idea how Miranda had managed to raise those two Energizer bunnies on her own for so long. Even Seth, a Navy SEAL who’d had strenuous training in endurance, admitted that there were days he collapsed in bed thanks to the two children he’d officially adopted last year.

“You wanna see my picture?” Sophie bubbled, her brown pigtails swinging around as she hurled herself into Jackson’s lap.

He wrapped an arm around the little girl and peeked at the crumpled piece of blue construction paper in her hands.

“What exactly am I lookin’ at, darlin’?” he said with a laugh.

Sophie pointed to two little stick fingers. “Well, that’s me ’n Jase—see, Jase is wearing his baseball hat. And that’s Mommy in a pretty pink leotard. And that’s Daddy over here. I gave him red eyes because he was really mad this morning because we woke him up by jumping on his head, but I don’t get why he got mad because it was almost noon and nobody should sleep ’til noon—that’s what Mommy always says.”

“Mom always says that,” Jason piped up, nodding vigorously.

Seth made an irritated noise. “I slept until noon because somebody kept me up all night. Maybe you guys should tell Mommy that marathoning crappy TV shows isn’t a productive pastime.”

“I wouldn’t have to marathon it if they didn’t end every episode on a cliffhanger!” Miranda objected. She turned to Jackson and added, “I’m watching Lost on DVD. And yes, I know I’m several years too late but I never had time to watch it when it was on.”

“She stayed up until five a.m.,” Seth grumbled. “I’m lying there trying to sleep and every five minutes she wakes me up to tell me how Sawyer is soooooo hot.”

Miranda smirked. “I can’t help it. I like bad boys.”

Jackson had to laugh. There was no arguing that Miranda had landed herself the biggest bad boy of them all. With his scruffy appearance, tattoos and smartass attitude, Seth was definitely rough around the edges, but the guy had grown up a lot since marrying Miranda and becoming a father to her kids.

“Anyhoo, I should check on dinner,” Miranda said, sliding off Seth’s lap. She glanced at the twins. “Do you guys want to help?”

“Ya!” both kids declared, and then they were gone, scrambling after their mother into the house.

“Soph called you ‘Daddy’,” Jackson remarked when he and his fellow SEAL were alone. “When did that start?”

“A few days ago,” Seth admitted. “Jase introduced me as his dad at his last Little League game, and the rugrats have been calling me that ever since.”

To Jackson’s surprise, Seth looked vaguely embarrassed.

“You totally like it,” he accused, grinning broadly.

His buddy shifted awkwardly, a faint blush on his cheeks. “Kinda.”

If someone had told Jackson two years ago that Seth Masterson, the wiseass he’d met during Hell Week, would marry a single mom with a good head on her shoulders and take on the task of raising her kids, he would have laughed in their faces. But life was funny like that.

“So, you really hit it off with that gardener, huh?” As usual, Seth changed the subject the moment the conversation got a wee too squirmy for his liking.

Jackson sighed, then took a quick sip of his beer. “I did. But she totally shot me down.”

“You think she’s playing hard to get or just not interested?”

“Naah, she was interested. I know when a girl’s into me.”

Seth snickered. “Maybe you’ll come home tonight and find her in your bed wearing nothing but a cowboy hat.”

“And a gun holster,” he said with a frustrated breath. “Don’t forget the holster.”

Now his friend was laughing in earnest. “Fuck, I would have paid to see that. I can’t believe you drew your gun on her.”

“I thought she was a frickin’ burglar.”

“Jesus. That’s pure gold, man.” Seth grinned. “Well, fingers crossed that this gardener you’ve got a hard-on for isn’t bat-shit crazy too. Though I still think you’re nuts for hiring her company to do our yard just so you can talk to her again.” There was a pause. “Does that make her a hooker, you think?”

“I’m not payin’ to sleep with her, asshole. I just want another shot at asking her out.”

Seth arched a dark brow. “Potato, potahto.”

Jackson rolled his eyes and raised his beer to his lips again. Fine, so maybe hiring Mia was going a little too far, but he didn’t know how else to get her alone. She’d sped off without giving him her number—all he had was the name of the gardening company she worked for.

But come Monday, he was going to have something else.

A date.





Chapter Two

“Danny, time to wake up!” Mia pounded her fist on her brother’s door a few times before hurrying down the narrow corridor while raking a hairbrush through her knotted hair.

They were running late, as per usual. Seemed like their mornings always involved a lot of running around like chickens with their heads cut off. It didn’t help that Danny slept like a rock and was impossible to rouse once he was REM-deep, but fortunately, after two years on their own she’d finally mastered the difficult feat of waking him up. Meaning he had five more minutes of snooze time before she dumped a glass of cold water on his face.

She burst into the apartment’s tiny kitchen, dropped the hairbrush on the linoleum counter and hopped onto a plastic stepladder so she could reach the top cupboards. God, being short sucked. At sixteen, her little brother already towered over her.

Kind of like Jackson…

Sighing, Mia pushed all thoughts of her clients’ sexy neighbor from her head and focused on grabbing a box of Corn Flakes from the cupboard.

“Danny!” she yelled again.

There was no response. Apparently her brother was determined to sleep until the last possible second.

Normally she wouldn’t care, but her boss was sending her to a new client today, and Mia really couldn’t afford to be late. Gillian had called last night and told her the client had specifically requested Mia over the other three gardeners who worked for Color Your Yard, which meant she needed to make a good first impression. Especially now that she was in the running to take Gillian’s place once the boss opened up the Anaheim branch next spring. If she took over for Gillian in San Diego, she could finally quit her second job and live a stress-free life for a change.

“Danny!” she called out. “I’m standing in front of the sink about to pour some water into a glass!”

There was a beat, followed by a muffled groan that echoed through the apartment. “Coming!”

Grinning, she fixed herself a bowl of cereal and leaned against the counter to eat it. She was wearing her trademark gardening “uniform”—denim shorts, a tank top, sneakers and a baseball cap—and she had to admit, she loved having a job that allowed for such a casual get-up. She couldn’t imagine working somewhere that required her to wear pantsuits and high heels. That sounded like pure torture to her.

She was just rinsing her bowl and spoon in the sink when Danny stumbled into the kitchen with a loud yawn and a groggy look. His green T-shirt was the same shade as his eyes and revealed his defined biceps, and the jeans he wore encased a pair of long, muscular legs that continued to startle her.

Somehow, in the span of two years, Danny had transformed from a scrawny kid to a well-built young man. He was fourteen when he’d moved in with her, a lost, skinny boy who was dying to stay at one school long enough for him to play football. Now he was a sixteen-year-old heartbreaker, a junior at Madison High who’d just landed the coveted starting varsity quarterback position. He was over the moon about it, and Mia was thrilled for him. If anyone deserved to live his dreams, it was her baby brother.

“Eat your breakfast and make it snappy,” she told him. “We’re late.”

“We’re always late,” he answered as he dumped a monstrous amount of cereal into his bowl.

“Yeah, and whose fault is that?”

“Yours.” He smirked through a mouthful of cereal. “If you were a more responsible guardian, you wouldn’t set your alarm for twenty minutes before we have to leave.”

He had a point, but she refused to give him the satisfaction of admitting he was right. Instead, she stuck out her tongue and said, “If I’m such a bad guardian, go ahead and emancipate yourself. You wouldn’t survive a day without me, bud.”

Danny swallowed before offering a rueful smile. “You’re totes right about that. I don’t even wanna think about doing my own laundry.”

Five minutes later, the two of them hurried out the door and descended the three flights of stairs that brought them down to the small lobby of their building. Tenant parking was in the back, and Mia’s work truck awaited them when they emerged from the rear doors and into the early-morning sunshine.

They were on the road a minute later, carrying out their usual morning battle over the radio dial. Eventually she gave up and let Danny listen to his shitty hip-hop station. She’d only have to endure it for ten minutes, anyway.

“The season opener is this Friday,” Danny said when the radio station launched into a series of commercials.

“Yes, Daniel, I’m well aware of that. You’ve only told me like a gazillion times.” Mia clicked the right-turn signal and changed lanes, keeping her eyes on the road ahead.

“You’re coming, right?”

“Of course. I wouldn’t miss it.”

A sidelong look revealed the pleased expression on his face. No matter how much they bickered—and how many times he accused her of being “annoying”—she knew her brother loved her and desperately craved her approval.

Since he’d come to live with her, Mia had made an effort to be the parental role model he’d been lacking all his life. She helped him with homework, attended all his games, went to every parent-teacher conference. She was twenty-six years old, way too young to be the mother of a teenager, but she’d accepted her situation. You had to play the cards life dealt you, after all, and she didn’t regret taking on the mom role. If anyone deserved to live a normal life, it was her brother.

“So listen…”

Danny’s hesitant voice instantly raised her hackles. When she glanced over and saw the cautious expression on his face, she grew even more uneasy.

“What’s up?” she said.

“I just wanted to tell you this so you won’t be blindsided if she actually shows up, but…”

Mia’s shoulders stiffened. Shit. She knew exactly where this was going.

“Um…” Danny cleared his throat. “But yeah, I emailed Mom yesterday to tell her about the game. You know, just in case she’s in town or something and wants to…um…you know…come see us.”

A sigh the size of California lodged in Mia’s throat. Along with visible discomfort, there was a flicker of hope in her brother’s eyes. Fucking hope.

God. That woman deserved to rot in hell for everything she’d done to this kid.

“I see,” Mia said in a guarded tone. “Well…look…I understand why you…I mean, I know you want to…” She finally released the sigh, at a loss for words. “I don’t want you to get your hopes up, hon. She’s…”

Not going to come, her internal voice finished.

Danny gave one of those teenage I-don’t-care-about-anything shrugs. “I know she won’t show. I just wanted her to know about the game, okay?”

Mia nodded. “Okay.”

With that, her brother leaned forward and twisted the volume dial. A 50 Cent track blared out of the speakers, with a baseline so heavy it caused the entire truck to vibrate, but Mia didn’t make a stink about it. The mood had turned somber, a common occurrence whenever they spoke about their absentee mother.

A few minutes later, Madison High came into view and Mia pulled up at the curb in front of the school. She stopped the truck just as the bell rang, turning to Danny with a pained smile.

“Have a good day, kiddo. You’ve got work after practice, right?”

“Yup. Lates, Mia.”

Danny hopped out and slung the strap of his backpack over one shoulder, then dashed across the manicured lawn toward the front steps of the brick building. As she watched him disappear through the doors, a wave of sorrow washed over her. He was such a good kid. Smart, sweet, talented.

Their mother was a damn fool for abandoning him.

Swallowing her resentment, Mia put the truck in drive again and sped away from the school. She had exactly twenty minutes to get to the new jobsite, but fortunately, traffic was surprisingly light as she headed across the bridge into Coronado.

The idyllic island was so small that it took no time at all to reach her destination. She was even five minutes early as she killed the engine in front of a pretty white house with an unkempt front lawn and a four-door sedan parked in the driveway.

All her gear was in the back, but she left it in the truck and headed for the front door instead of unloading. No point in lugging any equipment until she knew for sure what the clients wanted from her.

She was just raising her hand to ring the bell when the door swung open to reveal a pretty brunette clad in black leggings and a bright pink T-shirt.

“Hi!” the woman said, sounding breathless. “Are you Mia?”

She nodded and stuck out her hand. “Sure am. And you must be Miranda?”

“Yep.”

As they shook hands, two children appeared at Miranda’s feet and peeked up at Mia.

She couldn’t help but smile when she saw them. The kids were utterly adorable, carbon copies of their mother with dark hair and big brown eyes.

“Are you gonna make our garden pretty?” the little girl exclaimed.

“I’m going to try,” Mia answered cheerfully.

“Can you put a baseball diamond in the backyard?” the boy chimed in, equally thrilled.

She fought a laugh. “I don’t think so, kiddo. Not unless your yard is the size of Yankee Stadium.”

The boy heaved out a big sigh. “It’s not.”

“Then I’m afraid we’re outta luck.”

The children’s mother seemed to be fighting a laugh of her own. “Let me just take these guys to the car. I’ll be right back.”

The trio headed for the sedan, and after Miranda got the kids settled inside of it, she hurried back to the front stoop. There was a funny look on her face as she studied Mia.

For so long that Mia started to feel uncomfortable.

“You’re a lot prettier than I expected,” Miranda remarked.

Um.

Okay.

She tried to mask her confusion, but failed. “Thanks? So are you?”

The brunette laughed heartily. “Sorry, I just realized how creepy that sounded. But you really are pretty. You’ve got great eyes.”

O. Kay.

Mia snuck a peek at Miranda’s left hand and instantly spotted the wedding ring, which made the entire conversation even more baffling. She didn’t get the sense that Miranda was hitting on her, but women didn’t normally tell other women that they were pretty and had “great eyes”.

Did they?

Jeez, maybe she really was out of touch with the world.

“Anyway, let’s go around back quick-fast so I can show you what I’d like to do in the yard,” Miranda said, seemingly oblivious to Mia’s train of thought. “Oh, and my husband should be home around noon, so don’t be startled if a big, scruffy guy shows up. And you might also see—”

When Miranda stopped abruptly, Mia raised her eyebrows. “I might also see…?”

After a beat, the brunette shrugged, a strange expression in her eyes. “Nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

All right, there was something weird about this entire situation. Mia had no clue what it was, but she couldn’t fight the feeling that she was being…being what? Duped? Hit on? Lured into a sexual encounter with a hot brunette while her husband watched?

Stop being paranoid. They hired you to garden for them.

The reminder was only about ninety percent reassuring.

The other ten percent maintained that a lesbian seduction in front of Miranda’s “big, scruffy” husband wasn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility.

Clearly this was going to be an interesting day.





After a long morning of underwater demolition training that had commenced at four a.m., Jackson was dying to leave the base. He’d changed out of his scuba gear and into his street clothes in record time, and was just about to march out of the locker room when his commanding officer stepped inside.

Lieutenant Commander Thomas Becker was as intimidating now as he’d been when Jackson first laid eyes on him three years ago. Built like an action star, the man had close-cropped brown hair and a pair of intense eyes that never failed to make a guy feel like he’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Then again, when it came to Jackson and his teammates, Beck was probably right to remain eternally suspicious. He’d had to bail them out of more than one jam since they’d been assigned to his team.

“Hold up,” Becker barked, jabbing a finger at Jackson.

Jackson experienced a flicker of unease, until he realized Beck wasn’t singling him out—Seth, Dylan and Cash were also on the visual radar, and the four men exchanged a wary look as their CO crossed his arms over his bulky chest and scowled at each of them.

“I just wanted to give you the heads-up that we’ve got Team Eight coming in next week,” Becker announced.

“What for?” Dylan asked.

Jackson shared his teammate’s curiosity. It was rare for the West Coast SEAL teams to interact with the East Coast teams.

“Special Operations wants us to conduct some joint training missions,” Becker replied. “I’ll let you know the details when I’ve got ’em, but just be prepared to run a few ops with some new faces. They’ll be staying in the barracks here, so none of you boneheads get any ideas about letting them crash at your places.”

Seth hooted. “Are you ordering us to deny our fellow servicemen hospitality?”

Becker glared at him. “They don’t need your kind of hospitality, smartass. And from what I’ve heard, Team Eight is the East Coast equivalent of you troublemakers, so don’t go inviting them to your swinging parties or whatnot.”

Everyone burst out laughing.

“How dare you,” Seth said in mock outrage. “I am a married man, sir.”

“Swinging parties?” Cash echoed. “None of us are swingers.”

“Trust me, I’ve got enough lovers to deal with at home,” Dylan spoke up wryly.

Their CO just scowled again. “I mean it. No partying with Team Eight. I’m not in the mood to bail anyone out of jail again. Understood?”

“Understood,” they chorused.

After Becker stalked out of the room, Seth turned to the others and grinned. “Let’s throw the Eighters a welcome orgy.”

“Pass,” Dylan answered. “Claire and Aidan would kill me if I touched anyone else.”

“So would Jen,” Cash said ruefully.

Seth sighed. “Yeah, you’re right. Bad idea. Miranda would kick my ass.”

Jackson stayed quiet, and experienced an odd pang of regret about it. He didn’t have a lovely lady—or in Dylan’s case, a lovely lady and a hot dude—getting all possessive over him. It bummed him out a little.

“Damn, I can’t wait to get home and sleep,” Dylan announced as the four men strode out of the locker room.

“Do you need a ride or did you take Aidan’s car this morning?” Cash asked, running a hand through his dark hair.

“Negative on the car. Claire took it to run a few last-minute errands before she leaves.”

Jackson glanced over. “Where is she going?”

“Los Angeles, for business. She’ll be gone for three weeks,” Dylan told him.

“I guess that’s the good thing about living a life of sin—your girl’s away but you’ll still have your man at home,” Seth cracked.

“Actually, Aidan’s gone too,” Dylan said glumly. “He’s got some downtime so he’s spending a few days in LA with the missus and then heading to Chicago to see his dad. Which means I’ll be all by my lonesome for three whole weeks.”

Seth rolled his eyes. “Poor baby.”

“Poor baby is right,” Dylan muttered. “That means no sex for twenty-one days.”

“That’s an eternity in manwhore years,” Cash agreed solemnly.

Jackson snorted. Cash had totally called it—there was nobody who loved sex more than Dylan Wade. Men, women, didn’t matter the gender. Dylan was a serious horndog, which probably made it a good thing that he was now in a relationship with not one, but two partners.

Truthfully, Jackson still had no clue how he felt about Dylan’s unorthodox love life. Growing up in a tiny town in Texas, he hadn’t encountered many polyamorous relationships. The residents of Abbott Creek were hard-workin’, God-fearin’ folks who loved their football and believed that marriage was reserved for a man and a woman, thank you very much. If there were any liberal-minded folks in town, Jackson sure as heck hadn’t encountered them. That was one of the reasons he’d skipped town and joined the navy—he hadn’t been able to put up with those narrow-minded busybodies for one more second.

Needless to say, the fact that one of his best friends was involved in a permanent ménage a trois was a bit of a head-scratcher, yet Jackson honestly couldn’t say he disapproved. He adored Claire McKinley, Dylan’s girlfriend, and thought Aidan Rhodes, Dylan’s boyfriend, was pretty dang awesome. And as long as Dylan was happy, who was he to pass judgment?

The four of them continued chatting as they left the base, but Jackson’s head was elsewhere now. He was going to see Mia again. In about, oh, ten minutes, according to the tactical watch strapped to his wrist.

He couldn’t frickin’ wait.

“See you boys later,” Cash said when they reached the parking lot.

Dylan glanced at Jackson. “We still on for that COD sesh tonight?”

“He might have other plans,” Seth spoke up with a barely restrained grin.

That got the other two men’s attention.

“Another date?” Cash blurted out. “Oh man, if it’s another date can you please, please videotape it for me?”

“Are you seeing the sex addict again?” Dylan demanded. “Because I want pictures of her cowboy outfit—oooh, and try to get a shot of the two of you where you’re holding your gun.”

“Fuck you both,” Jackson said darkly.

Cash’s blue eyes twinkled. “Aw, come on, turn that frown upside down. A sex addict broke into your house. Most men would consider that a high-fivable story.”

“Seriously, though—you, me, Call of Duty tonight?” Dylan prompted.

“We’ll see,” he answered, shrugging. “I’ll text you later to let you know.”

“Cool beans.”

Fortunately, neither Cash nor Dylan pressed him about why he might not be available, and a moment later, the duo waved goodbye and hopped into Cash’s SUV.

Jackson had caught a ride with Seth that morning, so he slid into the passenger seat of Seth’s Jeep and waited for his buddy to start the engine.

“So, you excited?” Seth grinned, then went on in a singsong voice. “Jackson and Gardener sitting in a tree, K-I-S—”

He promptly slugged the other man in the arm. Hard.

“And that’s enough of that,” he said, rolling his eyes. “You’ve been spendin’ too much time with the twins.”

Seth sighed. “I know, right?”

“And her name isn’t Gardener. It’s Mia.”

“Gee, I’m so sorry. Jackson and Mia sitting in a—”

Another hard punch shut Seth right up.

“You’re no fun today,” the other SEAL mumbled. “I’m simply showing some enthusiasm over your impending love connection, asshole. Not only that, but you should be thanking me. Because of you, a strange woman is currently puttering around in my yard. What if she decides to snoop inside and finds my porn stash?”

Jackson had to laugh. “One, she’s not gonna snoop around on the job. Two, why do you still have a porn stash? I thought married men threw their porn away once they tied the knot.”

“No way.” Seth steered the Jeep toward the security gate across the lot. “Miranda demanded I keep it all. We watch that shit together, bro.”

Somehow that didn’t surprise him.

As they drove off the base, Seth proceeded to tell him about the various pornographic movies he and his wife enjoyed, which, again, came as no surprise. Jackson had once thought it strange and oddly incestuous how easily the other guys talked about—and shared—women. Folks in Abbott Creek didn’t talk about sex, God knew he’d found that out the hard way, but here in California he’d learned to go with the flow. Threesomes weren’t really his thing, mostly because of that strict small-town mentality he’d endured growing up, but he appreciated that his teammates trusted him with their secrets, no matter how depraved.

One of these days he might even reciprocate, but he’d yet to find the balls to confide in his friends about the kinds of depravities he liked to indulge in.

His palms grew unusually damp the closer they got to Seth’s place. Seth must have sensed his growing agitation because he glanced over with his trademark smirk.

“Relax, Texas. You’ve got this. Believe in your dreams, think outside the box, there’s no ‘I’ in ‘Team’, etcetera, etcetera.”

Jackson stared at his friend. “Are you just spitting out random inspirational sayings to pump me up?”

“Yep.”

“I honestly don’t know why I’m still friends with you.”

Seth turned onto his street, drove fifty yards and pulled into the Mastersons’ driveway, where a familiar sky-blue pickup was already parked.

Jackson’s pulse promptly sped up.

She was here.

“I’m going straight to bed,” Seth told him as they got out of the Jeep. “Wake me up when you want me to drive you home.”

“Thanks, man.”

They walked into the house together, but while Seth made a beeline for his bedroom, Jackson continued down the hall toward the kitchen.

This was it. His second and last chance to persuade his sassy gardener to go on a date with him, which meant he couldn’t screw it up.

He approached the glass sliding door that led out to the yard and straightened his shoulders.

Time to unleash his God-given Southern charm and do some serious wooing.





Chapter Three

She was wearing those cute denim shorts again. That was Jackson’s first observation when he stepped onto the stone patio. The fact that she was oblivious to his presence gave him ample opportunity to admire her petite body, and dang, he totally appreciated the view.

With a pair of earbuds popped in, Mia bobbed her head to the music as she raked the fresh layer of dirt in the empty flowerbeds lining the fence. When Jackson glanced around, he was impressed by how much she’d already accomplished today. The jungle-length grass was freshly mowed, all the monstrous weeds had been pulled out, and the beds around the perimeter were dug out and topped with new soil.

He took a step forward and cleared his throat, but Mia’s back stayed turned. Her arms and shoulders were bare, and her golden-brown tan shimmered in the sunlight. Lord, she was pretty. He couldn’t take his eyes off her.

A few more steps and his scuffed-up combat boots met the grass, but Mia still didn’t turn around.

Sighing, Jackson raised his voice and called out, “Afternoon, sugar.”

The rake clattered out of her hand, a loud shriek escaping her lips as she spun around in surprise. The movement was so quick that her sneaker-clad feet got tangled together, her arms windmilled and she went down like a stone.

Right on her ass.

Fuckin’ hell.

“Oh my God! You scared the living crap out of me!” she yelled, her green eyes burning with annoyance. “Who sneaks up on people like that? Who?”

Despite himself, Jackson laughed, which only made those mesmerizing eyes burn brighter.

Mia yanked out her earbuds and shot to her feet, advancing on him like a predator. “Don’t do stuff like that! What if I had a heart condition? And what if—wait a sec. What are you doing here? Oh man. Did you follow me here?” Her breaths came out in pants. “I’m flabbergasted right now. Jackson, was it? I’m flabbergasted, Jackson.”

Another wave of laughter poured out of him. She looked so confused and upset and he knew he shouldn’t laugh. He really, really shouldn’t be laughing, but his attempt at reconnecting with this woman had failed so miserably it was impossible not to find it hilarious.

“And you’re laughing at me,” Mia said in disbelief. “Wow. Just. Wow.”

“I’m sorry,” he choked out. “I don’t mean to laugh, darlin’. But the look on your face right now…” He smothered another chuckle and tried to compose himself. “Shit. I really am sorry. Why don’t we start over? Afternoon, Mia. It’s good to see you again.”

She gaped at him.

“I’m not following you,” he added. “I’m friends with Seth and Miranda.”

“You’re friends with Seth and Miranda.”

“Yep. I caught a ride with Seth from the base—”

“You caught a ride with Seth from the base.”

“Yeah, we’re both SEALs. Anyway—”

“You’re both SEALs.”

“—he’s drivin’ me home soon, but I wanted to say hi to you before we—”

“You wanted to say hi.”

Jackson stopped. “Are you just gonna keep repeating everything I say?”

“Are you going to prove to me I’m not being stalked right now?” she shot back. “Because I’m not sold on that yet, bud.”

He swept his gaze over her indignation-flushed cheeks. “You’re dang pretty when you’re mad, sugar.”

Her jaw fell open again. “Flirting? You’re flirting with me? How about explaining yourself, sir!”

Amusement tickled his throat. “All righty. Here’s the thing, Mia. I’d really like to have dinner with you.”

“Oh, for the love of…”

“Unfortunately, you were mighty difficult the last time we spoke, so I figured we needed to try this again.”

Her mouth slammed shut. She looked around the backyard for a moment, and then understanding dawned in her eyes. “Wait a minute—you hired my company to work this yard so you could ask me out again? This job is a farce?”

His lips twitched. “The job is not a farce. This is my wedding present to Seth and Miranda. You saw the state of their yard—it definitely needed the work.”

“But you specifically requested me to do it.”

“Yep.”

Mia shook her head in amazement. “You do realize that’s nuts, right?”

“Naah, it’s not nuts. Just persistent.”

“Persistent,” she echoed.

“Persistent,” he confirmed. When she didn’t speak, he slanted his head and searched her gaze. “So, about that dinner…”

This time her jaw opened so wide it almost hit the grass. “Seriously? After everything I just heard, sugar, what makes you think I’d go out with you?”

“Because you want to.”



Mia didn’t know whether to kick Jackson in the shin or simply burst out laughing. Never in her wildest dreams had she expected to see this man again, let alone here, at a new client’s house. The lengths he’d gone to in order to ask her out triggered a tidal wave of disbelief, but she’d be lying if she said she wasn’t a tiny bit flattered. No man had ever pursued her so hard, especially one as spectacular-looking as Jackson.

But still. She couldn’t go out with him. Her former shrink would tell her that enabling stalker behavior was a recipe for disaster.

“I told you, I don’t have time to date,” she finally responded, whipping off her cap so she could run a frazzled hand through her hair.

“One dinner, Mia.” His tone softened, his whiskey-brown eyes taking on a vulnerable glimmer.

The vulnerability threw her for a loop. A man as big and sexy as this one wasn’t supposed to be so…sweet.

Sweet? Oh boy, she was in trouble. She wondered if there was a Stockholm Syndrome-esque diagnosis for women who developed crushes on their stalkers.

“You can’t deny you’re enjoyin’ this,” he went on, shooting her the most adorable grin she’d ever seen in her life. “You, me, this easy banter we’ve got goin’ on.”

She had to sigh. “It’s definitely rom-com-level banter, I’ll give you that.”

“Look, darlin’, I like you.” He shrugged sheepishly. “And I think you like me too. So what’s the harm in having one teeny weeny dinner together?”

Teeny weeny? Shit. The lame words only made him more endearing.

Oh, throw the man a bone, girlfriend. He’s practically groveling at your feet.

Another sigh rose in her throat. Argh. Truth was, she did like him. He was tall and gorgeous and charming as all get-out. And maybe saying yes to a date wouldn’t be a terrible idea. She hadn’t gone out with anyone in ages, and she couldn’t live like a nun forever.

“Come on,” he cajoled. “One dinner.”

After a long beat of hesitation, Mia capitulated.

“Fine.”

His expression lit up like a Christmas tree, which caused a rapid caveat to exit her mouth.

“One dinner,” she said sternly. “We’ll eat some food, banter some more, and that’s it. I’m not committing to a second date, got it?”

His surprisingly full lips quirked up in a smile. “Got it. Don’t worry, I’ll be a gentleman—I won’t demand a second date until we’ve got the first one squared away.”

A laugh flew out. “Who says you’ll enjoy the first one enough to request a follow-up?”

“Oh, I’ll enjoy it.” He cocked a brow. “So will you, by the way.”

“I will, huh? I guess we’ll just have to see about that.”

“Yup, we sure will.” Jackson reached into the back pocket of his faded jeans and pulled out a cell phone. “Now give me your number, sugar. I’ll call you tonight to set up the details for our date.”

His confidence was a little unnerving. So was the cocky glint in his eyes.

But since it was too late to back out, she dutifully recited her number so he could enter it into his phone.

All the while wondering exactly what she’d just gotten herself into.





“I’m sorry, I think I misheard you,” Mia’s brother said the next evening. “Did you just say you had a date tonight?”

Mia ignored his shocked tone and brushed past him, her bare feet slapping the hardwood floor on her way to the bathroom.

“Really, a date?” Danny trailed after her, disregarding all the manners she’d tried to instill in him by following her right into the washroom.

Mia glared at him in the mirror over the vanity. “Go away, kiddo. I have about ten minutes to learn how to put on makeup.”

With that, she opened the medicine cabinet and grabbed the plastic bin that housed all the unopened beauty supplies she never used.

“I’m not going anywhere until you tell me about this date,” Danny said with a broad smile. “Who is he? Where did you meet? And why does he want to go out with you?”

She ripped open a package of mascara and tossed the wrapping in the pink wastebasket. “Ha-ha. You’re a comedian. Hey, do you know how to use this thing?”

As she held up the plastic tube, Danny stared at her as if she’d grown horns and sprouted a tail.

Then he opened his mouth and shouted, “Angie, get in here! Mia needs you to make her look attractive!”

Mia glowered at her brother again. “Eff you,” she grumbled.

A few seconds later, Danny’s girlfriend dove into the bathroom in record time. Her fair face was flushed and her blue eyes shone with curiosity. “What’s going on? What do you guys need?”

“Mia doesn’t know how to put on makeup,” Danny announced before rolling his eyes. “Jeez. I’m a dude and even I know how to put on makeup.”

Mia stifled a groan. “I’m fine. I really don’t need help.”

“She really needs help,” Danny said.

Angie’s entire face brightened as she released a happy cry. “Oh my God! I’ve been waiting months for this moment! BRB—just gonna get my makeup kit from my backpack!”

As the blonde flew off in a whirl of excitement, Mia scowled at her brother. “Now look what you’ve done. I’ll never leave this bathroom.”

“Trust me, Ang is good with this kind of stuff. She wants to be a makeup artist.” Danny edged out the door. “I’m grabbing some chips so I have something to snack on while I watch you turn into a real girl.”

As he wandered off, Mia stared at her reflection in the mirror and heaved a massive sigh. Damn it, why had she agreed to this date? She hated all this girly shit.

And why was she even trying to pretty herself up? She wasn’t planning on seducing Jackson—or even seeing him again after tonight. What she really ought to do was show up at the restaurant in sweats and with her hair in a ponytail. At least then he wouldn’t want a second date.

Footsteps sounded from the hall again, signaling Angie’s return. Argh. Danny just had to open his big mouth. Now thanks to him, she was officially at his girlfriend’s mercy.

Not that she disliked Angie or anything. In fact, she adored her. Angela Marks might be a cheerleader, but ditzy she was not. The sixteen-year-old was sweet, smart, unbelievably kind—and a virgin, to boot. A fact Mia had discovered when grilling the girl the first time Danny brought her home.

Just because Mia had lost her own virginity at sixteen didn’t mean she wanted the same for her brother, but as far as she knew, Danny and his girlfriend still hadn’t done the deed even after a year of dating. And she was damn grateful for that.

“Okay, tell me everything,” Angie said after she’d ordered Mia to sit on the closed toilet seat. “Who is he? Is he cute?”

“His name is Jackson and he’s very cute,” Mia admitted. “But don’t bust out any parades, hon. I probably won’t see him again after tonight.”

“Why not? You never go out, Mia. You totes deserve to have some fun.”

“I’m too busy for that.” Her jaw dropped when the younger girl deposited an enormous zipped case on the counter. “What on earth do you keep in there? Rocks?”

“Every girl needs a fully stocked makeup kit,” Angie said firmly. “We’ll go out this weekend and buy you one.”

“Naah, I’ll pass.”

Danny’s voice came from the doorway. “Stop being a grouch. Angie’s right. It’s about time you started caring about your appearance. I don’t want a spinster for a sister.”

“Um, excuse me, but us spinsters prefer the term old maid,” she said stiffly.

Angie burst out laughing. “You’re awesomely funny. Jackson is going to love you.”

“Jackson?” Danny echoed curiously. “Is that his name?”

“Yep,” Angie answered for Mia. “And supposedly he’s very cute.”

“What does he do? Like, for a job?”

Mia laughed at her brother’s narrowed eyes. “Why do you care? If he’s unemployed will you forbid me from seeing him?”

“Of course. I don’t want some bum taking advantage of my old-maid sister.”

“Don’t worry, he’s not a bum. He’s a SEAL.”

Both teenagers gawked at her.

“For real?” Angie blurted out.

“For real.”

Danny’s suspicion transformed into glee. “That’s so frickin’ cool. Do you think he’ll bring a gun on your date?”

“Why on earth would he do that? He’s a soldier, not a cop.”

“Is he picking you up? I’ve never met a SEAL before.”

Jeez. Her brother looked scarily excited about the prospect of Mia going out with a navy man. Maybe she ought to send Danny on the date.

“I’m meeting him at the restaurant,” she replied.

The interrogation didn’t let up. “Which restaurant?”

“Go away, babe,” Angie announced. “I have a lot of work to do and you’re distracting me.”

“Fine.” Just like that, Danny left the room without a protest.

Mia raised her eyebrows. “I’m impressed. It takes me a minimum of five attempts to get him to do what I say.”

“That’s ’cause he likes making you mad. He thinks it’s funny.” Angie stuck her hand in the case and emerged with a tube of beige foundation. “’Kay, now quit talking. This might take a while.”





Chapter Four

Mia was late.

Jackson waited in front of the small Italian bistro on Market Street and checked his phone for the third time in the past five minutes. No new messages.

He would’ve been worried that he was being stood up, if not for the text Mia had sent him ten minutes ago informing him she was on her way. The gentleman in him still wished she’d allowed him to pick her up, but she’d been mighty insistent about meeting him here.

Clearly she was trying to keep her distance right off the bat, which didn’t surprise him considering how difficult it had been getting her to even agree to dinner. But her arm’s-length approach didn’t faze him. He was determined to win Mia over tonight, no matter what.

Truth was, he liked her. He really, really liked her, a rare and wonderful feeling he hadn’t experienced in ages. Lord, he hadn’t realized how frustrating dating could be. Sex? That was easy—San Diego was full of women eager to take off their clothes for a SEAL. But finding a girl who truly liked and wanted to be with him? A whole other story.

“Hey, sorry I’m late!”

He lifted his head in time to see Mia round the side of the building, and the sight of her blew him away. His gaze darted up and down her body, unable to focus on any one detail because they were all so dang incredible. Her hair was loose, the dark shoulder-length tresses curling slightly at the ends, and her skin looked so soft and luminous his fingers tingled with the urge to stroke her face. She was wearing makeup, but not an obscene amount of it, just enough to accentuate her gorgeous hunter-green eyes, high cheekbones and full lips. And she’d donned a dress tonight. A knee-length green sundress paired with brown platform heels that added a few inches to her tiny frame.

“You done checking me out or should I give you another minute?”

Her dry voice snapped him out of his ogle-fest. Clearing his throat, Jackson shoved his fingers in the belt loops of his khaki cargo pants. “You look amazing,” he said gruffly.

Her lips stayed in smirk formation, but there was no mistaking the flicker of pleasure in her eyes. “Thanks. I’ll have you know I endured forty-five minutes of torture at the hands of my brother’s girlfriend in order to look like this. That’s why I was late.”

“Aw shucks, darlin’. You got a makeover just for me?”

“Don’t you dare read anything into it. I’d have done it for anybody.”

“I don’t believe you.” With that, he smiled broadly. “C’mon, let’s head inside.”

They walked through the bright red door of Tonio’s, Jackson’s favorite place to eat in San Diego. His teammates constantly teased him about it, maintaining that cowboys were supposed to eat steak and potatoes and nothin’ else, but Jackson had always had a thing for Italian food. When he and Mia had messaged back and forth about tonight, he’d been dang pleased to hear that it was Mia’s favorite food too.

“I love this place,” she told him as they entered the dimly lit waiting area. “Danny and I get takeout from here at least once a week.”

Apparently she wasn’t kidding, because a second later, the dark-haired woman at the hostess stand greeted Mia like the two of them were old friends.

“Mamma Mia!” the older woman teased, her brown eyes crinkling. “You didn’t call ahead to place an order, cara.”

“No takeout for me tonight, Rosa. We’re eating in.”

The hostess shifted her gaze to Jackson, and a smile stretched across her face. “Ah, I see. A special occasion! Let’s get you a table then.”

The woman led them into the cozy main room, which felt even more romantic than usual. The entire bistro seemed to glow from the soft light seeping out of the overhead fixtures, and the faint strains of classical piano only enhanced the amorous vibe.

They arrived at a table with a crimson tablecloth, lit candles and gleaming silverware resting on pristine white napkins. After they were seated, the hostess hurried away and a waiter took her place, taking their drink orders before handing each of them a leather-bound menu. And yet for all the pomp and circumstance, the food wasn’t overpriced and there was no air of pretension about the place.

“So,” Mia announced, clasping her hands on the tablecloth. “You did it.”

“Did what?”

“You lured me out of the house for the first date I’ve had in years.” She raised her eyebrows in challenge. “Time to show me what you’ve got, sugar.”

He flashed her a grin. “Hmmm…I can take my shirt off if you want. That usually gets the ladies goin’.”

She rolled her eyes. “I don’t doubt it. But I was thinking more along the lines of you wowing me with your conversational prowess.”

“All righty. Well. Name a topic and I promise to rock the shit out of it.”

Her answering laugh made his pulse race. He liked her laugh. It had a sweet lilt to it, like a pretty melody.

“Tell me where you grew up,” she ordered. “’Cause I know that’s not a California accent.”

“I’m from Texas. Grew up in a little town called Abbott Creek, about fifty miles west of Dallas.”

“Let me guess, you hail from a family of cowboys.”

“Yup. My folks own a cattle ranch, so I spent my entire childhood waking up at the crack of dawn to do a shitload of chores.”

“Did you like the ranch work?”

“I loved it,” he confessed. “Growing up I wanted nothin’ more than to stay on the ranch. Maybe buy a spread of my own someday.”

Her green eyes went thoughtful. “But you joined the navy instead. Why?”

He shrugged. “I needed a change.”

“Well, that’s vague.” She laughed again. “Care to elaborate?”

Discomfort welled inside him, but he forced himself to offer a few more details. “Small-town life is…oppressive, for lack of a better word. Everybody’s always stickin’ their noses into everybody else’s business. I got sick of it. I wanted to experience life beyond Abbott Creek, know what I mean?”

Mia nodded. “Yeah, I get that.”

The waiter returned with their drinks, then waited patiently while they scanned the menus and ordered their entrees. Once he was gone, Jackson turned the tables on his date.

“Have you always lived in California?” he asked.

“Naah, we moved around a lot when I was a kid. I was born in Colorado, but my mom moved us to New Jersey when I was five. Then we moved to Philly, Chicago, Atlanta, Missouri, um—I think I’m forgetting a few places—and then after high school I came to San Diego for college, and ended up loving it here. So I stayed.”

He wrinkled his forehead. “Why’d you move so much?”

The edge that crept into her voice told him he’d struck a nerve. “My mom kept getting married.”

Jackson blinked. “Huh?”

“She gets married a lot.” Mia absently dragged her index finger over the trail of condensation clinging to her water glass. “I think she’s on marriage number nine now.”

“Nine?” He was utterly dumbfounded.

“Actually, I could be wrong. I haven’t seen her in two years, so she could have tied the knot a couple more times, for all I know.” Sarcasm dripped from her voice. “I think she’s trying to double Liz Taylor’s record.”

“So each time she got married she packed y’all up and moved you to a new city?”

“Well, it was more like each time she got divorced we packed up and moved to a new city. Trust me, her divorces were as epic as her marriages—no city was big enough to accommodate both Mom and her latest ex-husband.”

Jackson didn’t need to be a genius to figure out there were definitely some unresolved issues when it came to Mia’s relationship with her mother. But Lord, he couldn’t even imagine growing up with a parent like that. His folks were happily married and had been for nearly thirty years now, and they’d raised their family in the same little town where generations of their ancestors had put up roots.

“Moving so much must have been tough,” he remarked.

She gave a noncommittal shrug. “It was harder on Danny, I think.”

“Your brother?”

“Yeah. He never really got to be a normal kid, and with the ten-year age difference between us, I was already out of the house when he was just eight.”

“Sure, but you still had to deal with it for eighteen years of your life,” he pointed out.

Another shrug. “I managed. I’m a lot tougher than Danny, truth be told. He’s too softhearted for his own good. He always made excuses for our mom—still does. He refuses to admit how selfish she truly is.”

“Where is she now?”

“Who knows.” Mia took a long sip of water, unmistakable sadness washing over her expression. “She showed up at my door two years ago with Danny in tow and asked if he could crash with me while she went on a one-month honeymoon with her latest husband. I said sure—I mean, I love that kid to death—but once the month was over, she never came back.”

Shock spiraled through him. “Seriously?”

“Yep. She took off and never looked back. That’s why Danny’s living with me now. I filed for guardianship of him and the court approved my request on the grounds of abandonment.”

“Shit, Mia, that’s…”

“My life,” she finished. “But enough about that. No need for both of us to leave here bummed out and jonesing for antidepressants. Tell me about this SEAL thing.”

He grinned. “SEAL thing?”

“Yeah, you know, your military career. How many times you’ve saved the world, that kind of stuff.”

A chuckle slipped out. “Why, does the idea of me saving the world get you goin’?”

“What is it with your need to get me goin’?”

“Can’t help it. I want a second date, remember? That ain’t gonna happen unless I make you fall in love with me.”

Her laughter tickled his ears and made him want to jump across the table and kiss her.

“Ain’t gonna happen,” she mimicked.

“Fine. I’ll settle for making you fall in lust with me then.”

“That probably won’t happen either.”

The remark piqued his interest. Cheeky as it was, he’d detected a note of resignation in her voice, and he suddenly wondered if maybe she had some sexual hang-ups. Once the thought entered his head, he realized it might not be completely absurd. Mia was sexy as hell, but she didn’t exude sexuality, that sensual aura a lot of other women possessed. Which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, granted. He totally dug the whole fresh-faced-innocence vibe.

But her comment made him curious enough to say, “You don’t experience lust often, darlin’?”

“Not really,” she confessed. “I mean, I’ve been attracted to guys before, but never in a super lusty way. You know, like I can’t wait to rip their clothes off and screw them silly.”

“Are you a virgin?” he had to ask.

“Nope. Are you?”

“If I say yes, will you be my sexual tutor and make a man outta me?”

“Nope.”

“Fine, then no, I’m not a virgin.”

“Shocking.”

He tipped his head, still intrigued by the entire conversation. “Do you enjoy sex?”

Mia laughed again. “This is not appropriate first-date subject matter.”

“Well, seeing as there won’t be a second date—” he shot her a pointed look, “—I figure any topic is up for grabs tonight.”

“Fair enough.” She sipped her water. “Fine, I’ll answer the question. Do I enjoy sex? Not really. Honestly, I can take it or leave it.”

His eyebrows soared to his forehead. “You don’t like it at all?”

“It’s okay, I guess, but I’ve never had a sexual encounter that’s been any better than my solo sessions.” An endearing blush appeared on her cheeks. “Actually, I have more fun alone than I ever have with a guy.”

Damned if his dick didn’t take that as a challenge.

Jackson shifted in his chair, trying to ignore the semi-erection that had sprung in his pants. Mia’s candid revelations had brought way too many visuals to mind. Like the image of her lying in bed, her fingers moving between her legs as she got herself off. Or the one of him in that bed with her, licking every inch of her body and proving to her just how much fun it could be having another person around.

“What, no response?” she said with a smirk. “Let me guess—my thoughts about sex have changed your mind about that second date.”

“Not at all.”

She looked surprised. “Really? You don’t think it’s weird that I’d rather make myself come than—” She halted abruptly, her cheeks turning redder as their waiter strode up with their meals.

Jackson swallowed a laugh when he noticed the waiter’s face. The man’s expression was polite, but the flicker of amusement in his eyes said that he’d definitely overheard Mia’s last remark.

Neither of them spoke as their food was served, and after the waiter hurried off, Mia stayed silent. She stuck her fork in the tangle of linguine on her plate, then took a bite of the steaming, tomato-sauce-covered noodles.

“Ugh, that’s hot!” she burst out a second later, making a mad grab for her water.

Jackson chuckled. “That’s what you get for trying to avoid the subject.”

“I’m not avoiding. I thought we were done talking about it.”

“A man is never done talkin’ about sex, sugar.”

That got him another laugh. “Okay. What else do we have to say about it then?”

He picked up his knife and fork and cut into his massive serving of chicken Parmesan. After popping a small piece into his mouth, he chewed thoughtfully, then said, “Tell me one sexy secret nobody knows about you.”

Mia wrapped her fingers around her glass. “Hmmm. Well. How’s this? I keep a nine-inch dildo in a locked drawer beside my bed.”

His semi-erection transformed into a full-blown boner.

Breathing through the intense wave of arousal, Jackson responded in a casual voice. “Interesting. Because my sexy secret was gonna be that I have a nine-inch cock.”

“Wow. Congratulations, big boy.” His date snorted, then raised her glass to her lips.

“Oh, and it’s pierced.”

A spray of water splashed the table as Mia did an honest-to-God spit take.

Smirking, Jackson took another bite of chicken.

“You’re joking,” she finally said.

He met her narrowed green eyes. “Am I?”

Her tone grew even more suspicious. “There’s no way a small-town Texas boy like yourself has his nether regions pierced.”

“It’s a dang shame you’ll never get to find out,” he said cheerfully. “I guess you should’ve thought twice before insisting this is a one-date thing.”

She harrumphed, wiped her mouth with her napkin and picked up her fork again.

“So…” he said pensively, “back to the topic at hand. You don’t care for sex. Is it just the penetration part or all parts?”

“You’re incorrigible.”

Her chest heaved as she released another exasperated sigh, drawing his gaze to her breasts. They were smaller than he usually liked, just a gentle swell of cleavage peeking out of the bodice of her dress, but something about those perky little mounds made his mouth water.

Lord, he wanted to fuck her. Getting to know her better had been the number one item on his agenda, but now that was joined by a hefty dose of desire. He wanted her naked. Naked and moaning while he thrust into her and drove her mindless with passion.

“And it’s all parts of it.”

Her voice brought him back to the present. To the table where they were both seated, fully clothed.

Mia chewed quickly, then went on. “The intercourse part, the oral, the kissing—it’s all boring to me.”

“Really, even the kissing?” he said in surprise.

“Yep. I don’t know if I’m the bad kisser in the equation, or if the guys I’ve made out with have just been abysmal at it, but make-out sessions have never really done it for me.” She offered a knowing look. “You must think I’m a total prude, huh?”

“Nope. I think you’re the most fascinating woman I’ve ever met.”

“Clearly you don’t get out much either.” She rolled her eyes. “Now enough about sex. Let’s talk about less stressful things. Tell me how you became a SEAL.”





Two hours later, Mia had to face the indisputable truth—she liked Jackson Ramsey.

Not once during the entire dinner had they run out of things to talk about. In fact, the conversation had flowed so smoothly that not only had they stayed for dessert, they were now lingering on their second cup of post-dessert coffee.

It was ridiculously hard not to like this man. He was smart, charming, funny, down-to-earth. He listened when she spoke, laughed at her dumb jokes, was interested in her job. And she’d discovered in the course of their date that he wasn’t just a soldier, he was also the medic on his SEAL team, which meant he was extra good at saving lives.

Oh, and his cock may or may not be pierced. Don’t forget that part.

Right, who could forget that…

The strangest thing about the date was the way it made her feel. Or more specifically, the way Jackson turned her on. The pull of attraction was so strong her entire body had felt hot and achy from moment one. Every time Jackson opened his sexy mouth, her heart began to race. And whenever her gaze strayed to his chest, hugged by a snug black T-shirt, her palms went damp. And each time she looked into his sultry brown eyes, she utterly melted.

It didn’t help that he kept looking at her like he wanted her naked. The man had mastered seductive gazes to a T, and knowing he was undressing her with his eyes only caused her to mentally undress him—and that particular mental picture was so hot she was liable to burst into flames any second.

By the time Jackson paid the bill and helped her out of her chair, Mia was ready to flee. She couldn’t get caught in the spell he was attempting to cast on her. As wonderful as he was, seeing him again wasn’t an option.

But clearly her date had other ideas.

“So, when can I see you again?”

Mia stifled a groan and walked through the door he held open for her. When they stepped outside, the late-evening breeze snaked beneath her hair and cooled her warm cheeks.

“Jackson…” He was so tall she had to peer up at him to meet his eyes. “I had a good time. Seriously, I did. But this doesn’t change anything. I’m still swamped with work and taking care of Danny. I don’t have a lot of free time.”

“I’ll take whatever you can give me,” he replied in a cheerful voice. “One dinner a week, lunch every other week, I don’t care, darlin’. I just want to keep seein’ you.”

For Pete’s sake. The man truly was tenacious. She’d told him that she was pretty much a single mother, confessed her indifference to sex, and he still wanted to see her again?

“I’m not looking for a relationship,” she said feebly. “Or a fling.”

“I know that.”

“Then what’s the point? Why bother spending more time together if it won’t go anywhere?”

“Because I want to. Because you want to.”

She fiddled with the little brown pocketbook she was using as a purse, snapping it open to retrieve her keys. “It won’t work. I’ve got too much on my plate to commit to anything more. And besides, I feel bad getting your hopes up about, you know, potentially getting jiggy, because it probably won’t happen.”

“Why, ’cause you think you won’t like it?”

Because I know I won’t.

She bit back the words before they could slip out. Truth was, she’d completely underplayed the whole sex thing during their discussion earlier. She found sex so boring and unsatisfying that she’d even raised the subject with her old therapist. For a long while she’d thought there might be something wrong with her, like maybe she was an asexual weirdo who’d never be able to function like a normal sexual being, yet the fact that she could give herself wild, breathless orgasms without any trouble contradicted that.

She was just so apprehensive about getting intimate with anyone again. She’d slept with four men in her life, and each encounter had been more disappointing than the last.

“Y’know what, I’ve got an idea,” Jackson said before she could respond.

She shot him a questioning look, but rather than elaborate, he took her hand and started leading her toward the side of the building. The warmth of his fingers seeped into her palm and made her feel achy again. God, she didn’t understand this effect he had on her. At all.

But although she was incredibly tempted to explore it further, she didn’t want to set herself up for any more disappointment. It wasn’t as if she’d never experienced arousal before. She did, all the time. The second she acted on it, however, the sensations seemed to dull. And forget about achieving orgasm. Only one lover had made her come before, and getting there had been a struggle, to say the least.

“What are you up to?” she asked warily.

He practically dragged her into the small parking lot behind the restaurant, which was packed with cars. Jackson scanned the lot, then broke out in a grin. “Look at that,” he drawled, “even our vehicles know we make the perfect couple.”

Mia followed his gaze, groaning when she noticed the black pickup truck parked right beside her blue one. “Let me guess—that’s your pickup?”

“Sure is.” Still grinning, he led her toward the trucks, then let go of her hand and crossed his arms over his broad chest. “Here’s the deal, sugar.”

“There’s a deal?”

“Yup. I want to go out with you again. You’re being difficult. So here’s what I propose.”

“Gee, I can’t wait to hear this.”

He ignored the sarcasm and swept his tongue over his bottom lip, an act so sexy she shivered.

“I’m goin’ to kiss you.”

Her breath hitched. “What?”

“I’m goin’ to kiss you,” he repeated. “And if you like it, then you have to agree to see me again.”

Damned if her heart didn’t start pounding. The heat in his whiskey-colored eyes seared right through her clothing and sizzled her flesh, making her feel hot and dizzy.

“You’re nuts,” she stammered.

“Maybe, but that’s the deal, sugar. You claim that nothin’ gets you goin’, not even a kiss. You also said you had a good time tonight, did you not?”

“I did, but—”

“The reason you don’t want to pursue this is because you think I’ll never be able to turn you on—”

She felt herself blush. “That’s not what I—”

“—so it stands to reason that if I can prove to you I’ve got the moves, you’ll have no choice but to give this a shot.”

Mia’s mouth closed. His reasoning was certifiably wacky, but she couldn’t seem to argue with it.

“Do we have a deal?” he prompted, shooting her an adorably crooked smile.

It was sheer curiosity that had her nodding.

“Good. Then here goes—prepare to have your world rocked.”

The laugh that flew out was cut short by the feel of Jackson’s mouth on her neck.

Her neck?

Surprise jolted through her at the same time a flurry of shivers danced across her skin. His lips were warm against the side of her neck, his dark hair tickling her chin as he bent his head to latch his mouth on to her bare flesh.

“Um…is this what you…consider a kiss?” she murmured between shivers.

“Quit distracting me. I’m busy,” came his muffled voice.

Mia’s neck was on fire as he trailed soft kisses along its column. The rasp of his stubble scraped her flesh, leaving tiny pricks of pleasure in its wake.

“You smell so dang sweet, Mia.” His breath tickled her ear.

Jesus. What was he doing to her? She could barely stay upright, and he hadn’t even kissed her mouth yet.

With a soft rumble of approval, he buried his face in the crook of her neck, then kissed his way up to her ear and enclosed the delicate lobe with his lips.

Mia shuddered, stunned by the shockwaves that surged through her. Her knees wobbled as he sucked gently on her earlobe, hands trembling so bad she had to rest them against his chest to steady herself. And oh boy, touching him was a bad idea. His chest was rock solid beneath her fingers, his muscles so defined they may as well have been carved out of stone.

Chuckling, Jackson slid his hands down to her waist, and the next thing she knew, she was being led backward to the shadowy strip of gravel between the two trucks. Still grasping her waist, he backed her up against the side of her pickup, then moved one hand to her face, his thumb sweeping over her cheek.

“Close your eyes,” he said gruffly.

Her eyelids fluttered obediently. She stood there, eyes shut, heart pounding. Waiting.

The rustling of his clothing hinted that he was moving closer, and then his body heat surrounded her and the most intoxicating scent filled her nostrils. God, his aftershave was addictive. A hint of spice and lemon, with a woodsy fragrance thrown into the mix.

When his lips finally touched hers, she almost keeled over. His mouth was gentle, a featherlight brush against her trembling lips. His fingers traced the line of her jaw as he moved his mouth over hers again, firmer this time.

“C’mon, sugar, let me in.” The tip of his tongue skimmed the seam of her lips, coaxing, teasing.

When Mia parted her lips, that wicked tongue slid inside without delay. Her core clenched the second their tongues met, a painful squeeze of lust that pulsed in her clit.

Oh my God.

She was turned on. She was insanely turned on.

“Oh, Mia, you taste like heaven,” he rasped, pulling back slightly.

Her eyes were wide as she looked at him, her heart pounding even harder when she glimpsed the raw desire burning in his whiskey eyes. His handsome features were taut with passion, and she could see his pulse hammering in the hollow of his throat. He wanted her. There was no denying it.

And there was no denying that she wanted him just as bad.

With a husky growl, he dipped his head and captured her mouth, driving the kiss deeper this time, taking it to a whole new level. His tongue teased her senseless, and when he nipped at her lower lip with his teeth, a soft moan slipped out and echoed in the night air.

“You okay?” he murmured.

She couldn’t answer. The force of arousal had tightened her throat, making it impossible to speak.

He chuckled quietly, and then his mouth found hers again. One warm hand tangled in her hair, angling her head so that she was at the mercy of his mind-blowing kisses, while his other hand glided down her body, snuck beneath her dress, and settled directly over her damp bikini panties.

Mia whimpered and tried to break away. “Someone might see us,” she hissed out.

“No one can see us, sugar. We’re completely hidden from view.”

Another moan left her throat when he rubbed her sex with the heel of his hand.

“Ah, look at how wet you are,” he muttered as his lips teased her neck once more. “Your panties are soaked.”

Embarrassment scorched her cheeks. He was right. She was drenched.

“You’re blushin’.”

His teasing voice only made her blush harder.

“Don’t be embarrassed, Mia. You’re turned on. That’s perfectly acceptable.” His tongue circled her earlobe. “In fact, baby doll, that was exactly the response I wanted from you.”

Sugar. Darlin’. Baby doll. The man certainly had a silver tongue.

Oh God, his tongue. It was in her mouth again.

And his hand… Rubbing, stroking, driving her crazy.

Mia’s legs started shaking. She’d never felt this way before. Every square inch of her body throbbed relentlessly, and either she was imagining it, or those were the first ripples of orgasm tingling in her core.

“You like that, don’t cha?”

Jackson’s thumb grazed her clit over her panties, his warm breath fanning over her lips.

When she moaned, he laughed seductively. “Ah, you do like it.”

His thumb brushed her swollen bud again and she jerked.

“So is it safe to say that I’ve succeeded in—”

The orgasm came without warning, surging through her in a fiery rush.

Biting her lip to stop herself from crying out, Mia buried her face in Jackson’s chest and rocked into his hand as waves of pleasure consumed her body. She fisted the front of his T-shirt, holding on tight, stunned by what was happening.

He seemed equally stunned when he finally withdrew his hand, which was no doubt covered in the moisture that had seeped through her panties. He gently tugged her by the hair and forced her to look at him.

“Sweet Jesus, did you just come?”

Mia managed a nod.

His brown eyes gleamed with pure male satisfaction just for a moment, and then his expression turned sheepish. “Shit, Mia. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for that to happen. I didn’t think I was applying enough pressure on your lady bits—I was purposely trying not to.”

She choked out a laugh. “My lady bits?”

He cast that little-boy grin that made her pulse race. “Yes, your lady bits. A gentleman can’t say the word pussy on the first date, sugar.”

Another strangled laugh popped out. “You just said it!”

“That didn’t count.” He swept his gaze over her face. “Are you mad at me?”

“Are you seriously asking me if I’m mad that you gave me an orgasm?”

“It was only supposed to be a kiss,” he said gruffly. “I crossed the line. I’m sorry.”

Mia gaped at him. Who was this man? He’d just made her come apart in the parking lot of the restaurant. He’d barely touched her and she’d exploded like a Fourth of July firecracker, and now he was apologizing for it?

“It’s okay. I forgive you.”

Obviously he hadn’t picked up on the sarcasm because he beamed at her as if she’d just told him he’d won the lottery. “You do?”

“Jesus. Yes. Oh my God, Jackson, you really are nuts.”

“Good nuts or bad nuts?”

“There’s no such thing as good nuts!”

Smirking, he lowered his hand and cupped his groin. “Sure there is, darlin’.”

Sheer exasperation had her fighting another wave of laughter. God, this man was one of a kind. And damned if her pussy didn’t clench again the second he touched himself like that.

“So…” His hand left his crotch, his long fingers hooking in his belt loops. “When can I see you again?”





Chapter Five

“You sure you’re cool with going to a high school football game?” Mia asked Jackson on Friday night. She’d just slid into the passenger seat of his truck, which was parked at the curb in front of her building.

“I told you, as long as I get to spend time with you, I don’t care what we do.”

The smile he gave her made her heart do a silly little flip. Gosh, she’d been thinking about that smile for three days now. And his husky voice. And his gorgeous face. His rock-hard body. His hands. Yep, definitely his hands—AKA what he’d used to make her come in the parking lot of Tonio’s.

The memory continued to floor her. She’d gone to bed that night overwrought, confused and stunned, analyzing every sexual encounter she’d ever had in such detail she may as well have drawn up diagrams and flow charts. What had her previous lovers done wrong? What did Jackson know that they didn’t? Why had her body decided to respond to him when it had always been so meh about the other guys in her life?

She’d fallen asleep without reaching a single conclusion, and seeing Jackson again now only raised a slew of new problems.

Because the moment she’d gotten into his truck, she’d wanted to fuck him.

“You look sexy as hell, by the way,” he told her as he started the engine. “I’m lovin’ the outfit.”

Mia glanced down at her black Madison High Warriors T-shirt, skinny jeans with a hole in the left knee and bright red flats, wondering how anyone could label the outfit “sexy as hell”. And yet Jackson was eyeing her like he wanted to peel off her clothes, lay her down in the back of the truck and devour her whole.

“Um, thanks,” she answered. “You look nice, too.”

Nice? Ha. The man was a walking Adonis. She’d never met anyone who could pull off Levis, wifebeaters and plaid shirts better than Jackson Ramsey. He oozed raw masculinity in his casual get-up, and the fact that he hadn’t shaved since she’d seen him last only aided his heartthrob cause. The dark stubble slashing his jaw was so hot her fingers itched to stroke all those sexy bristles.

“Thanks, sugar. That’s sweet of you to say.” He put the car in drive and turned to look at her. “So where am I goin’?”

She gave him directions to Danny’s school and then they were off, Jackson smoothly switching gears as he merged into traffic. When they reached the stop sign at the end of the street, he leaned forward and flicked on the radio. The upbeat tempo of a Temptations song wafted out of the speakers, prompting Jackson to sing along.

Mia burst out laughing. Never in a million years would she have pictured herself sitting in a pickup truck with a bona-fide cowboy, listening to him croon out the words to “My Girl”.

“What, no country music?” she teased.

Shrugging, he shot her a sideways look. “Oldies are my guilty pleasure. I only listen to country when I’m feelin’ down.”

“I can’t imagine you ever feeling down,” she said frankly. “You might just be the happiest, most well-adjusted man I’ve ever met.”

“Everyone gets sad sometimes, sugar. Even happy, well-adjusted folks like myself.”

There was an odd chord in his voice, an emotion she couldn’t quite put her finger on, but he flashed another smile before she could try to decipher it. “Anyway, tell me how your day was. Are you working a new job?”

She nodded. “Yeah, we just got contracted by the city to redo all those little parks near the waterfront. It’s a lot of work, but it pays an obscene amount, so my boss promised everyone big bonuses once it’s done.”

“Nice. Oh, and by the way, Miranda loved what you did at their place. She’s telling all her clients about you. I’m not sure you know this, but she owns a dance school in the city.”

“She mentioned that, yes.” Mia paused. “I really liked her. We’re going to try to have lunch next week.”

He offered a mock pout. “So you’ll make time for Miranda like that—” he snapped his fingers, “—but you make me beg for it? Evil woman.”

“Hey, I made time for you, pal. Are we not having a second date at the moment?”

“Damn right we are.”

He sounded so overjoyed about it that she had to grin. “Better make this one good too or you won’t get a third.”

“Oh, I’ll get a third. Just you wait.”

They reached Madison High five minutes later, then spent a full ten minutes cruising the jam-packed lot for a parking space. Apparently everyone and their grandmother had shown up for the season opener, and Mia experienced a burst of pride that her brother was starting tonight. She’d taken him out for a steak dinner when he’d gotten the coveted position, an achievement that was made all the more impressive because the coach had chosen a junior for his varsity quarterback over the current senior starter.

A pang of nervousness tickled her belly. “I really hope he does well,” she told Jackson.

“I’m sure he will. You don’t become the starting QB unless you’re good.”

“And he better not get hurt,” she added anxiously. “I’m always so worried he’ll get sacked and break his neck out there.”

“Injuries are a risk in every sport,” he agreed in a serious voice. “But worrying doesn’t achieve anything. There’s nothing you can do to protect him when he’s out there on the field, short of forbidding him to play.”

She bit her lip. “I know.”

They finally found an empty parking spot a million yards from the entrance of the field, then trekked across the paved lot toward the gate. Jackson didn’t take her hand or walk overly close to her, but she was completely aware of his presence.

And she wasn’t the only one. Female heads swiveled sharply as Jackson sauntered past, his long strides eating the pavement. Every single woman, young and old, gazed at him with blatant appreciation, gawking as if they simply couldn’t believe their eyes.

Jackson, however, seemed oblivious to the admiring stares. “Football and injuries go hand in hand,” he said, picking up where they’d left off. “My teammate Cash learned that the hard way.”

“How so?”

“He was at Notre Dame, guaranteed to be the first overall pick in the NFL draft when he busted his shoulder. Took him a year to get back to playing shape, and by then the draft had passed and a whole new group of young QBs were anglin’ for the pros. So he enlisted.”

“I don’t want that to happen to Danny. Not the enlisting part—I wouldn’t be mad if he did that,” she said quickly. “But he has his heart set on playing college ball and then making it to the pros. I want him to achieve his dreams.”

“What about your dreams? What do you want out of life?”

“I’m doing what I want. Working outdoors, gardening, landscaping. I love what I do.”

“That’s good to hear, darlin’. Not many people are able to do what they love.”

They reached the main gate, where three bored-looking teens sat behind a long table collecting entrance fees.

“Dang, shit’s changed since I was in high school,” Jackson remarked. “When did folks start payin’ to watch the games?”

“Nothing comes free anymore,” Mia said with a sigh.

Despite their murmured complaints, the tickets only cost five bucks apiece, and Jackson dutifully handed one of the kids a ten-dollar bill.

“Want somethin’ to drink?” he asked as they walked through the gate.

“Sure.”

A quick stop at the concessions stand got them two plastic cups of Pepsi, and then they wandered over to the row of bleachers that were closest to the home team’s bench. The players weren’t on the field yet, but the cheerleaders were, and Mia immediately spotted Angie among a large group of girls and guys clad in the black and silver Warriors colors.

She pointed the pretty blonde out to Jackson. “That’s Danny’s girlfriend. She’s a total sweetheart.”

Angie spotted them as they climbed the first step, and her ponytail bounced as she dashed over. “Mia!” she called. “Hey! I’m so glad you—oh. Wow. I mean…oh.” The girl’s cheeks turned the prettiest shade of pink as she stared at Mia’s date.

Smothering a laugh, Mia quickly made the introductions. “Ang, this is Jackson. Jackson, Angie. As you can see, Angie’s on the cheerleading squad.”

“Nice to meet you, darlin’,” he said easily, extending one large hand.

Angie kept staring.

And staring.

Until Mia finally had to clear her throat to snap the girl out of whatever trance she’d fallen into.

“Oh. Right. Hi. It’s nice to meet you, too,” Angie blurted out, leaning over the chain link fence to shake Jackson’s hand.

A flurry of whispers sounded from the vicinity of the squad. Mia looked past Angie’s shoulders and hid a smile when she noticed that all the female cheerleaders were huddled together and sneaking not-so-discreet peeks in Jackson’s direction.

“Um, well, I’ve gotta go warm up.” Angie’s blue eyes remained glued on the tall Texan. “I’ll see you guys later.”

“You’re a hit with the teenage-girl demographic,” Mia informed him once Angie was gone. “Don’t you get tired of being so good-looking?”

He snickered. “Nope. Who am I to complain about my God-given gorgeousness?”

“Is gorgeousness even a word?” she asked as they sat down in a pair of empty seats.

“Sure. The dictionary people created it when they saw me.”

Mia rolled her eyes. “I can’t figure you out. Who are you exactly? The cocky ladies’ man, or the super-polite gentleman?”

“Can’t I be both?” he challenged.

“I guess. But that makes it damn difficult to peg you.”

Jackson laughed so abruptly he spit out the drink he’d just taken a sip of.

Mia frowned. “What? What did I say?”

He let out another wheezy laugh and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “Nothin’. It’s just…you want to peg me, eh? You’re into pegging?”

Her confusion deepened, which only made him laugh harder.

“What am I missing here?” she demanded.

Grinning with mischief, he leaned in so that his lips brushed her ear. “In the sex world, pegging is when a woman fucks a man’s ass with a strap-on.”

Mia’s jaw fell open. “Seriously?”

“Mmm-hmmm.”

She felt her cheeks turning bright red, but at the same time, her pussy squeezed almost painfully as she envisioned the wicked scenario he’d just painted.

“Are you into that?” She lowered her voice and searched his amused expression.

Jackson shrugged. “Never had it done to me before, but I’m a big believer in trying anything once. Who knows, maybe I’d love it.”

Oh boy. She wasn’t used to being around men who were so sexually frank. The fact that he was open to being “pegged” told her that this man had no qualms about sex. Try anything once. Jeez. Obviously they were polar opposites when it came to intimate acts, and yet she couldn’t deny she found his open-mindedness incredibly attractive.

The PA system crackled, putting an end to the bizarre discussion—and Mia’s dirty thoughts. A moment later, the announcer’s voice reverberated in the outdoor stadium as he introduced the Warriors to the crowd. Each player burst out of the small tunnel and ran through the enormous banner on the field, then waved to the crowd before jogging over to the bench. It was a lot of fanfare for a high school game, but Mia had been to last season’s opener and it had been equally extravagant. Madison High took its football very seriously.

Danny was the fourth player to emerge on the field, and as he sprinted toward his coach, his green eyes diligently searched the bleachers. When he spotted Mia, he smiled and waved, but his gaze kept seeking even after he’d acknowledged his sister.

Her spirits plummeted when she realized who he was looking for. Their mother.

Who, as far as Mia could tell, hadn’t shown up tonight.

Shocker.

She watched her brother’s face as he continued to scan the crowd, her heart aching when she glimpsed the disappointment that befell his expression. His shoulders slumped briefly beneath his pads, but then he straightened up and turned to talk to Ken Jones, the head coach.

“You okay?”

Jackson’s voice was gentle, his touch even more so as he rested a hand on her arm.

Mia pasted on a smile. “I’m good. Just worrying about Danny again.”

“Ah, he’ll be fine, sugar. Check out those offensive linemen,” he said helpfully. “Those kids are monsters. They’ll have your brother’s back.”

I have his back, she almost blurted out, but she swallowed the words at the last second.

It was the truth, though. She was the only one in this world who had Danny’s back. Who loved him unconditionally. Not his coach, not his teammates, certainly not their sorry excuse for a mother. Just her.

And God, it took so much out of her. Knowing that she was solely responsible for Danny, for raising him right, was so daunting it often kept her awake at night. Because what if she screwed him up? What if she made a wrong decision and he ended up in jail? Or the subject of a TV show like Dexter?

She was only twenty-six, damn it, way too young to be taking on this kind of responsibility.

“Game’s about to start.”

Jackson’s voice pulled her out of her thoughts. Now wasn’t the time to be pondering such heavy notions, anyway. This was Danny’s big night, and she needed to concentrate on supporting him.

Taking a breath, Mia forced away her worries and focused her gaze on the field.





By the time the clock on the jumbotron counted down to zero, Jackson’s date had cheered herself hoarse. She’d jumped to her feet whenever the offense took the field, yelled out encouragements, whooped each time Danny successfully completed a pass, and when her brother had run the ball in himself to score the winning touchdown, Mia had bounced up and down like a kid in a toy store.

Her glee and excitement made the entire game even more entertaining, and Jackson stood up at the end of the final quarter with a grin on his face and a light feeling in his chest. This was what dating ought to be. Fun, easy, just a nice evening with a woman who didn’t cry the whole time, or tell him she loved him on the first date, or broke into his house after he explicitly stated he wasn’t interested in seeing her again.

“The kid did good,” Jackson remarked as they descended the bleacher steps. “He’s a natural. Got a great arm.”

“He does, doesn’t he?” Mia’s eyes shone with pride. “Do you think he’s got what it takes to play college football?”

“Definitely. Only issue I saw was that he takes a few seconds too long to read his offense, but those kind of instincts will come with practice and experience.”

They moved through the crowd, falling behind a middle-aged couple who walked slower than molasses, but Jackson didn’t mind the leisurely place. It gave him the opportunity to reach for Mia’s hand and interlace their fingers.

She stiffened for a beat before relaxing, then looked up at him with a tentative smile. “I had a lot of fun tonight.”

“Me too,” he said gruffly. “What should we do now?”

“I usually go out for pizza with Danny after his games.”

She actually sounded regretful, so much so that Jackson wanted to give himself a solo high five. He was winning her over. Hot damn.

“Is it a bonding thing or can I tag along?” he hedged.

“Let me see what Danny says. I always wait for him outside the clubhouse.”

Jackson tried not to raise his eyebrows, but dang, football really had changed since his high school days. He’d been a defensive end on his school team, and they’d practiced on a muddy field and played every game on a baseball diamond that doubled as a gridiron. Madison High, in contrast, not only had its own stadium, but the team locker rooms were housed in a structure separate from the school. A “clubhouse”. The boys were clearly living the life of luxury here, lucky bastards.

He and Mia headed for the small building next to the field, where several other people were already waiting. Most of them were older folks, undoubtedly parents of the players, but scattered groups of teenagers also milled around, many of them female. Football groupies, most likely.

At least that hadn’t changed, he thought with amusement.

It was ten minutes before Mia’s brother appeared, with his dark hair damp from the shower and his lean body wired with leftover adrenaline from the game.

Jackson instantly noted the resemblance between the siblings. Same hair color, same dark-green eyes, except while Mia was a tiny little thing, her brother stood close to six feet and would probably get even taller, Jackson suspected.

“Did you see that final play?” Danny demanded when he reached his sister. “The Panthers had no clue what was happening!”

“It was awesome,” Mia declared. “You played brilliantly, kiddo.”

“That was an impressive game,” Jackson chimed in, smiling at the younger boy.

Danny shifted his gaze, and suddenly Jackson had a pair of shrewd green eyes focused on him.

“You’re Jackson?” the kid said bluntly.

“Yup. Nice to meet you.”

“Yeah.” The teenager made an obvious show of appraising him. “Mia says you’re in the navy.”

“I am.”

“Officer or enlisted?”

“Enlisted. Petty officer second class. And one of the team medics.”

“Cool.” Danny cocked his head. “You’re ridiculously tall.”

Jackson grinned. “So I’ve been told.”

There was a beat of silence, during which Danny continued to study him until Mia finally rolled her eyes and spoke up. “Are you done checking out my date, Daniel?”

Her brother rolled his eyes right back. “Just trying to figure out what he’s doing going out with you.”

Mia slapped a hand on her heart as if she’d been shot. “Ouch. That hurt so bad. I need to go find somewhere private so I can cry.” Then she laughed. “Anyway, if you’re done insulting me, I wanted to know if we’re doing the pizza thing tonight.”

“Ah…no. I was gonna catch a ride with Angie’s folks and hang out at her place for a bit. Is that cool?”

“Yeah, it’s fine. Can they drive you home?” When her brother nodded, Mia stepped forward and gave him a quick hug. “Okay, have fun then. And be home by curfew.”

“Or what? You’ll ground me?”

“No, I’ll just do what I did last time.”

The kid’s face paled at her chipper response. “Fine, I’ll be home by midnight.”

“Good boy.”

Danny glanced at Jackson. “Later, dude. Glad you made it to the game.”

As Mia’s brother dashed off, Jackson looked over at her in curiosity. “What’d you do the last time he missed his curfew?”

“I cancelled his subscription to Sports Illustrated and threw all his video games in the trash.”

He let out a hearty laugh. “Sheesh, woman. You can’t do shit like that to a teenage boy.”

“I can, and I did.” She raised one eyebrow. “You questioning my parenting methods, sugar?”

“Did he ever miss curfew after that?”

“Never.”

“Then no, I think you’re doin’ a dang good job.”

That earned him a big smile. “Thanks. Now, do you want to grab a late dinner? I seem to be free.”

“Sure. Except I don’t feel like sittin’ anywhere. Do you mind if we get takeout and head back to my place?”

She narrowed her eyes. “If I agree to come over, are you going to try to seduce me?”

“Only if you ask me to.”

The answer got him another pleased smile. “Let’s go then.”

Jackson laced his fingers through hers again, and as they walked toward the parking lot, he couldn’t help but reflect on the easy relationship between Mia and her younger brother. It was obvious they adored each other, and their good-natured bickering reminded him of his relationship with his own sister.

An arrow of pain pierced his heart as the memory of his sister crept in. Lord, he hadn’t seen Evie in almost three years. He’d bailed on the holidays two years in a row, the most recent one because he’d been deployed overseas, the one before because…well, that had been cowardice, plain and simple. He hadn’t been able to stomach the thought of seeing his brother Shane and congratulating him on his nuptials to Tiff.

In his defense, at least he wasn’t completely out of touch. He spoke to his parents once a week and Skyped with Evie often, but Jackson knew it wasn’t the same as seeing them face-to-face. He missed his mom’s warm smiles, his dad’s gruff voice, his sister’s contagious laughter. He even missed his brother, despite everything that had gone down between them.

What he missed most of all was the ranch. The endless acres and lush pastures, the little creek that bisected the Ramsey land, the horses he’d grown up with and the cattle he’d brought into the world every calving season.

But he loved his life here, too. Loved knowing that he was serving his country and helping to keep it safe, loved the bonds he’d formed with his teammates, the crisp ocean air and