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A loud blast filled the air as seven guns exploded in succession. Once, twice, thrice. Twenty-one shots. Faces implacable, the honor guard shouldered their guns and stood as tall and rigid as the oaks lining the cemetery.
The echoing silence broke when the bugler sounded taps. Lieutenant Blake Landon stood at attention, his eyes narrowed against the bright morning sun. The chaplain's words of honor, bravery and sacrifice rolled over him like the gentle breeze, teasing, hinting but not really making an impact.
There was no mention of Phil's sense of humor, of how he always carried a rubber snake on missions to break the tension. That he'd hit a McDonald's the minute they were stateside for a bagful of French fries. The chaplain didn't know that before jumping from a plane, Phil always kissed his mother's picture, then rubbed a rabbit foot. He wouldn't mention Phil's love for the beach. It didn't matter how godforsaken hot their assignment might have been, the minute he was off duty, he'd hit the beachsun, surf and girls in bikinis. He'd often said those were his reward for getting shot at on a regular basis.
But that wasn't the Phil they were honoring right now.
Here, at Arlington National Cemetery, Lieutenant Phil Hawkins was a soldier. Here, the sacred tradition of honoring the noble warrior focused on service, dedication and sacrifice to country.
The entire SEAL platoon in attendance, Blake stood shoulder to shoulder with his team. His squadmates. The men he served with, fought with, trained with. Prepared to offer up the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
Later tonight, they'd all celebrate Phil, the man. Their squadmate, buddy, friend. The Joker.
He clenched his jaw, his eyes glancing off the flag-draped casket, then shifting to the distant trees again when the captain began the ritual of folding the red, white and blue material. As the chaplain offered his final words of comfort, the captain gently placed the folded flag into Mrs. Hawkins's hands.
Blake's focus locked on that triangle of fabric and didn't waver as the funeral finished. The people around him moved, shifted, left. He didn't. He couldn't.
They'd gone through BUDS training together. He, Phil and Cade. All cocky as hell, all determined to push their limits, to be superheroes. The Three Amigos, the rest of the team had called them. Inseparable.
Now permanently separated.
A large, beefy man joined him, scattering his thoughts. Grateful for the distraction, Blake directed his attention to the admiral. His hair as white and gleaming as his uniform, the older man topped Blake's own six feet by at least two inches.
"Lieutenant," Admiral Pierce greeted quietly. "I know this is a hard loss for you and your team. You have my sympathies."
"Thank you, sir," Blake said, his words stiff as he watched Phil's mom softly smooth her fingers over the folded flag, as if running her fingers over her son's cheek. Blake cringed when she lost it, her slender shoulders shaking as she sobbed into the triangle.
Desperate for distance, he ripped his gaze away. He looked at the trees. Oaks, mighty and strong, stood tall. Symbolic, probably. But he was having trouble finding solace.
"It never gets easier," the admiral said.
"Should it?" Blake asked, looking at the older man. His superior. His trainer. His mentor.
"No." The admiral glanced over at the trees. He sighed, then looked at Blake again. "No. But it's something you'll revisit. One way or another. Make sure you don't let it get in your way."
Just like that? Blake wanted to protest. To call bullshit on it being that easy to simply push the loss of his comrade, his friend, aside. But years of training, the respect he had for the man who'd recruited him to the SEALs, eliminated that thought almost before it formed. Instead, he inclined his head to indicate he'd handle it.
Clearly expecting exactly that, the admiral nodded. Then he cast an assessing glance around the graveside.
"Lieutenant Commander," the admiral called, his words carrying over the gentle grasses and soft murmur of the milling crowd.
Cade Sullivan, Blake's team commander and the third amigo, subtly came to attention. With a quiet word and a brush of his hand over Mrs. Hawkins's shoulder, he turned and strode across the lawn.
"I'm assigning your men leave."
Blake and Cade exchanged looks. All it took was two seconds, a slight furrow of the brow and a shift of their shoulders to know both men were in perfect accord. They didn't want to go on leave.
"Two weeks R&R, effective immediately."
For the second time since joining the navyand both in the space of the last few minutesBlake wanted to protest an order. He didn't want time off. He needed distraction. Work. A mission. Preferably one that included blowing up large buildings and letting loose vast amounts of ammo.
Fury was like a storm, brewing and stewing inside him.
It needed an outlet. The shooting range would work. Or the base gym.
As if reading his thoughts, the admiral inclined his head, offered a stern look and added, "You've just finished a tense mission, and lost one of your own. I hope you have places off base to stay, as I'll be leaving word at the gate that you're on inactive duty until September seventeenth."
For a second, Cade's usual charming facade cracked, the same anger Blake was dealing with showing in the other man's vivid green eyes. In an instant, it disappeared, and his smilethe one that lulled friend and foe alike into thinking he was a nice guyflashed.
"Looks like it's time for a trip home. My father will be thrilled. Thank you, sir. I'm sure the team will be excited about the R&R."
You had to admire Cade's talent for lying. The man had a way with sincerity that, when added to that smile, was pure gold. At least it was if you weren't the one he was conning. The truth was, the team was going to be pissed, Cade hated visiting home and his father hated having him there. Yet the guy still smiled as if he'd just been pinned with the Congressional Medal of Honor.
That's why Phil had always called Cade Slick. Blake was Boy Scout. By the book, a goody-goody, his whole life was focused on being prepared. On being the best SEAL he could be. And Phil? He'd been the Joker. The last thing he'd said before that bomb had blown him in two? Knock knock.
Jaw clenched, Blake glared at the sleek black lines of the casket.
Cade excused himself to inform the other men of their spiffy little vacation, leaving Blake and the admiral standing alone. The rest of the mourners were dispersing, civilians leaning against each other, shoulders low as they made their way across the lawn.
"Landon?" the admiral prodded. As if there was any option. Cade, like the admiral, was Blake's superior. He'd accepted the order, so it was a done deal.
"I'm sure I can find something to do," he said quietly. Not go home. He was less welcome in the trailer park he'd been raised in than Cade was at his big fancy mansion.
The guys were meeting later at JR's, the local bar and dance club Phil had favored. After that, Blake would go back to California. Drive up the coast, check out Alcatraz, the Golden Gate. Anything.
"I'll see you on the fifteenth."
Blake frowned. "I thought we were ordered off base until the seventeenth."
Had he misunderstood? Hell, it was only two days, but he'd take them.
"My retirement party. I expect you there. You can meet my daughter." With that, a stern smile and a clap to the shoulder that would have put a lesser man a foot into the ground, the admiral strode off.
Leaving Blake to contemplate those last words.
Meet the admiral's daughter?
Hot. Hot. Hot.
There were a lot of things to be grateful for in life. Good friends. A healthy body. Chocolate-covered caramel.
But not nearly as good as the sight of a gorgeous, mostly undressed man. The kind of man who made a woman very aware of all her girlie parts.
The one striding along the water's edge was that kind of guy, Alexia Pierce's girlie parts assured her. Gorgeous, built and, since he seemed oblivious to the women he left panting in his wake, as humble as he was hot.
Tall, she'd bet his body lined up perfectly with her five-ten frame. Long legs ate up the sand as he strode toward the ocean, his deliciously broad shoulders straight, his flat belly framed by a tapered waist. He had that sleek, muscled look that said he could kick some ass, but didn't have the bodybuilder bulk that screamed mirror-whore.
Dark hair, a little too short for her taste, had just a hint of curl. She wrapped her finger around one of her own ringlets, figuring a guy who fought the wave would have a little sympathy when humid days made her look like a demented poodle. She couldn't see his eyes from this distance, but he had those dark, intense brows that made guys look ferociously sexy. Either blessed genetics or the summer sun had washed his body with a pale golden hue.
She wondered if he was just as golden beneath those summer-blue swim trunks. Was it too much to hope a big wave would help out in giving her a peek?
The guy was a potent combination, guaranteed to make a strong, independent woman whimper with desire. At least, in her own mind.
As she mentally whimpered, Alexia shaded her eyes against the bright arcs of sunlight reflecting off the Pacific and interfering with her view of the gorgeous specimen of manhood as he dived into the ocean.
She actually envied the water as it slid over that rock-hard body.
"Want a towel?"
"Hmm?" she murmured, absently taking the soft fabric that was handed to her. Frowning, she glanced at the red beach towel, then at her brother. "What's this for?"
"To wipe your chin."
"Goof." She laughed, tossing the towel back at him before sitting back on her beach chair, her toes digging into the warm sand. "That's sweat from the sun. I'm not used to it being this warm the second week of September."
Or, admittedly, to seeing a man sexy enough to make her sit up and drool.
"Right. It's the heat." Michael was a master at sarcasm, his words as dry as the sand beneath their feet. "Aren't you in a relationship?"
Even as Alexia waved that question away with a flick of her wrist, she yanked her gaze from the water. She didn't know why. Even if she were in a relationship, looking wasn't cheating. And at this point, she and Edward were just colleagues who'd dated a few times. Friendswithout benefits. Buddies, even.
"Not so much in a relationship as considering one. Dancing around it, maybe," she admitted. More like trying to justify pushing herself into taking a handful of dates and a solid friendship and making them something more.
Something bigger. Of course, she'd been trying to talk herself into it for three months now. If there was one thing Alexia was good at, it was talking. "I don't know what we are, to be honest."
Michael tilted his red sunglasses down to peer at her. His eyes were the same dark, depthless brown as her own, but he was blessed with thick lashes while she was stuck relying on volumizing mascara. It'd be so easy to hate him for that. "You moved across the country for a guy. That says relationship to me."
Alexia lifted her bottle of water and sipped, her eyes sliding back to the ocean. All she could see of the swimmer was the occasional elbow. Why did that turn her on so much more than the idea of seeing all of Edward, naked?
Which was the problem in a nutshell. She liked everything about Edward. The man was brilliant, one of the foremost scientists specializing in psychoacoustics. She'd studied under him for two years when he was in New York, before he'd moved to California to take over the Science Institute. They had a lot in common, enjoyed each other's company and always had a ton to talk about.
The only problem was, she wasn't sexually attracted to him. And she couldn't imagine a relationship without sex. Without heat. Excitement and orgasms and spontaneous wall-banging releases. Those were as high on her relationship list as honesty and communication.
"I moved across the country for a once-in-a-lifetime job. That says career to me," she said as she dug her bottle back into the sand. "This position is off-the-charts exciting. I'll be doing in-depth research into correcting and enhancing sexual recovery for abuse victims by means of subliminal messaging, neurolinguistic programming and brain-wave technology. And get to be the face of the Reclaiming Yourself project. I'll meet with investors, promote the project and make a difference in how it's perceived by the press."
"You're an acoustical physicist with a minor in psychology. How does that translate into PR shill?"
Alexia grimaced at her brother's irritated tone.
"Show a little more enthusiasm, why don't you," she said, swiping her towel at him. "It got me back to California, so you should be grateful. Investors want to talk to someone directly involved who is working on the project. I'm better at the social stuff than Edward is, and since the project focuses more on female sexuality, it's better to have a woman front and center."
"In other words, Dr. Darling isn't as good at talking sex as you are?"
Alexia grinned, but as the words sank in, her smile dimmed. Yeah. Edward was great at the science of sex. But talking about it? Doing it? She wasn't so sure.
"I'm just giving you a bad time. I really am excited that you're back home," Michael said, patting her shoulder. He gave her a cheeky look. "With you here, publicly talking sex all the time, the heat's going to be off me with the parents. So thank Dr. Darling for me, 'kay?"
Alexia's smile disappeared completely.
"They're going to have a fit, aren't they?" she murmured.
By the time she'd started third grade, Alexia had known three things. One, that she was much, much smarter than the average bear. Two, that she didn't quite fit in anywherenot with kids her age, not with the agenda her parents lined up for her and not with what her child psychologist had deemed society's norms. And three, that her father would never love her. After a few years of exploiting the first while trying to hide the second, she'd finally realized that there was nothing she could do about the third. At thirteen, with a slew of academic awards, a couple of skipped grades and a social calendar filled with normal, acceptable, shoot-me-now-I'm-going-crazy boring activities, she'd done a tight one-eighty.
She'd stopped socializing and started failing classes. She'd turned to fatty food and sugar for comfort. She'd explored more ways to numb herself than she liked to remember. And to this day, she wasn't sure if her father had noticed any of that.
But he had noticed when, at sixteen, she'd been picked up by the base MPs, drunk and half-naked with an ensign thirteen years her senior. That'd been the second turning point in her short life. Her father's fury hadn't mattered. His blustering and disgust had barely dented her hangover. Seeing that, the admiral had proceeded to show her once and for all where she got her brains. In an ice-cold voice, he'd promised that the next time she stepped out of line, she'd be out of his house and no longer a part of the family. She'd shrugged, saying that she didn't care. He'd nodded, as if he'd expected exactly that response, before adding he'd then send Michael to boarding school overseas.
Michael. The one person who loved Alexia. Who accepted and celebrated her. Who she'd be cut off from until he was eighteen, if their father had any say in it.
Yep. The admiral was a scary man.
"Don't stress about it," Michael said quietly, clearly tracking her trip down memory lane. "Mom's thrilled you're back and Dad will come around eventually. They might not like what you're talking about, but the prestige of seeing you on TV, hearing you're at the big fancy billionaire parties like any good socialite will bring them around."
"Sure, as long as they ignore the part about me publicly talking sex." Alexia sighed. As much as she wanted to be tough and emotionless when it came to their parents, a part of her still cravedwith the desperation of a small childthat approval. But she couldn'twouldn'tchange who she was to get it.