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Fresh off a mission deep in the vicious heart of the Afghan desert, Taylor Powell strode down the gangplank of the aircraft carrier, his pack under one arm and the sea air dampening his skin. The sun, just starting to peek over the horizon, would melt the mist away soon enough, but for now Taylor welcomed the chill.
It'd been damned hot where he'd been.
His fingers tapped a tattoo on the butt of his side-arm. Yeah. It'd been hot. A ghost of a frown slid over his face, the only sign he'd allow as images flashed through his mind. Maybe a little too hot.
He breathed deep the fresh sea air, letting it cool his lungs and his thoughts.
"Yo, Wizard. You owe me fifty bucks."
"Don't you mean you owe me fifty?" Taylor slowed, throwing a grin over his shoulder at SEAL team member Shane O'Brian. "Face it, Scavenger. You're getting soft."
"Soft, hell," Shane muttered with a grin.
"Now that you've hooked up with that sweet little brunette, you're like a stuffed teddy bear. Supposed to be so big and tough, but feather soft inside."
"Feather soft, my ass."
Taylor made a show of looking the Scavenger up and down, from the tip of the guy's combat boots to the brim of his cap tilted low over his eyes. An inch taller than Taylor's own six feet-two, the only things that kept O'Brian from skinny were his muscles.
"You putting on weight?" Squinting at the other guy's flat stomach, Taylor shook his head. "Shoulda stuck with rations instead of scarfing down seconds of your lady's cooking."
"You miserable all by your lonely self?" Scavenger shot back. "Poor guy, stuck bouncing from woman to woman because none of them want to keep you?"
"Yeah." Taylor's grin turned wicked. "It's rough having women fall all over me, every one of them hot for good times, good sex and no strings. I gotta tell ya, I'm not sure how I sleep at night trying to figure out which one I'll hook up with next."
"Dog." Scavenger threw back his head, laughing. "You would be such a dog if you really thought like that."
"Can't say I mind the bevy of beautiful women and lack of strings," Taylor admitted with a shrug. After all, he likedno, he lovedsex. But the only thing he was willing to commit to was his country.
"Then you're in for a good time."
"You don't say." Catching Scavenger's grin, Taylor frowned. "Correction, say. What's up?"
Scavenger shrugged but unless the guy was standing at attention or facing an enemy, he had a lousy poker face. Still, it was hard to tell which was more apparent. Amusement. Or guilt.
"You sending me a stripper for my birthday?" Taylor hazarded a guess. "I'm partial to blondes with big"
"Your birthday isn't until December and with any luck " Damn.
"With any luck, what?"
When Scavenger didn't respond, Taylor grabbed his arm.
"It's nothing." Scavenger grinned. "The ladies are on a tear, is all."
"Ladies?" Uh-huh. "So what kind of trouble is your girlfriend starting?"
"Hey, don't blame Lark. Alexia started it."
Damn and double damn it all to hell.
"You're quick," Scavenger said in an admiring tone.
Given that the commander's wife had been trying to hook him up for months, that Irish's new bride had started asking him to dinner to meet her friends and that even the sweet hippie Aiden had married was talking about casting charts to find his perfect match, he was feeling pretty slow.
But he wasn't going to admit that.
"Nobody quicker," he said instead as they crossed the asphalt. "Which is why you owe me fifty bucks."
"The hell I do. I hit the ground first. It was my shot that took out the security system."
"You should have hit the ground first since you jumped first. What'd you do on the way down, man? Take a side trip? I landed first. It was my shot that took out the mark."
"Yo, Ice. Got a second to settle an issue?" Scavenger called out to the guy a few steps ahead of them.
"Settling issues is my specialty," the tall, blond SEAL said, his expression as deadly serious as his aim.
"Who hit the mark?" Scavenger asked, jerking his thumb between the two of them. "Me or the Wizard?"
"Are you kidding?" The Nordic mountain slowed, his pale blue eyes shifting left then right, piercing both men. "While you guys were getting ready to play hopscotch with guerillas, I was infiltrating a high-tech installation's security, weaving a virtual time bomb through their system without setting off any alarms."
Hopscotch. The image flashed through Taylor's mind of a baby-faced terrorist, barely five foot nothing in ragged clothes and dirtencrusted bare feet. There should be rules about who could play. There should be rules about who was safe.
A vicious knot wrapped itself around his guts and was ignored. He'd learned a long time ago that rules were like fairy tales. Believing didn't make them real.
But there was no point telling Ice that.
The man was a SEAL.
He already knew.
So Taylor pretended he was trying not to grin and gave a cocky nod.
"Yeah. You were busy playing hero." He waited a beat. "So who hit the mark? Me or Scavenger?"
Ensign Dag Eckart gave a sad shake of his head before striding off. Taylor exchanged grins with Scavenger as they waited with matched stances. Feet wide, arms crossed, chins high. It only took about a dozen steps before, without a hitch in his stride, Ice jabbed a thumb over his shoulder toward Taylor.
"Son of a bitch," Scavenger muttered as Taylor let out a loud whoop.
"Drinks are on you, my friend," he said, slapping the other man on the shoulder as they headed toward the base. "Olive Oyl's. 2100."
"I want a second opinion," Scavenger said, looking around for the rest of their teammates. "I'll find a second opinion."
"Knock yourself out." Taylor grinned as they approached debriefing. "You have till 2100."
As they rounded the building, they almost plowed into one of their teammates leaning against the wall.
"Yo, Mouse," Scavenger said, bumping the smaller man with his shoulder. "You get lost?"
Taylor smirked. Even though he was new to the team, everyone knew there was no place Mouse couldn't find.
Taylor's grin faded when he caught a better look at the man's face.
Haunted was the only way to describe it.
Nothing. Damn it.
"Ensign Bertowski," Taylor snapped.
"Sir?" Bennie Bertowski, call sign Mouse, blinked, the horror fading from his eyes as he looked from Taylor to Shane then back again. He blinked then came to attention with a salute. "Sir."
Shane started to reach out but when Taylor gave the tiniest shake of his head, the other man let his hand drop to his side. Mouse was his. Taylor had recruited the guy; had mentored him once he'd joined the team. Pulling him out of this was his responsibility.
"Debriefing in ten," Taylor said, keeping his tone crisp. "Stow your gear first."
"Yes, sir." Mouse opened his mouth as if to say something but then shook his head. "I'll be there."
With a nod to his superior officers, he strode off toward the armory, his weapon over one shoulder, his parachute pack over the other.
"Not the first time he's had issues with a mission," Shane observed when Mouse was out of earshot.
"It's only his third mission." Taylor shrugged off the tickle at the base of his neck. "He graduated top of his BUD/S class. He's got what it takes."
"They don't all make it," Shane pointed out quietly, his eyes on the retreating SEAL. "Not even getting through BUD/S is a guarantee."
"This one was rough," Taylor said dismissively, thinking of his own troubles shaking off the mission aftermath. "He'll be fine."
He'd make sure of it. The SEALs, the team, they were a brotherhood. Taylor hadn't had siblings growing up and he'd be damned if now that he'd found them he was letting a single one go without a fight. Especially not one he'd brought in himself.
At 2105, Taylor pulled into Olive Oyl's bar, his Har-ley's tires kicking up crushed shells as he roared across the parking lot. Long and lean, the weathered building's large windows showed that it was already packed inside.
With purple neon lights from the bar sign washing over the chrome of his bike, Taylor parked, swung his leg free and hooked his helmet over the handlebar. It'd be safe. Nobody messed with the SEAL's property here. The bar patrons knew better. Hell, even the punk kids who cruised the beach knew better.
Heading for the door, Taylor's head filled with the images of ones who didn't. With the ugly words spewing from young mouths, rifles firing from bodies that shouldn't yet be able to lift them.
Shake it off, he warned himself. Just as he'd warned Mouse to do when he'd taken him aside after the debriefing. They were trained to do the job and part of doing that job meant letting go once it was done. So he did what he'd instructed the other man to do. He shoved the memory, the horror, into a tiny corner of his brain and locked it away.
When he headed into the bar, it was with easy anticipation. And why not? The music was rock, the beer was cold and the place was filled with friends. One of whom owed him fifty bucks. Grinning, he set off to find his money.
Taylor stepped into the smaller room toward the back of the bar and gave an appreciative smile.
"Hello, ladies," he said quietly.
Six women, all uniquely beautiful, turned to greet him. All but Alexia, who was well into her pregnancy, crossed the room with hugs at the ready.
"If it isn't the Wizard himself," Alexia said with a soft smile when he joined her. "The guys are playing pool so you'll have to entertain us for a while."
"I'm here to please."
He nodded his thanks when the roving waitress in blue sailor pants, a cropped top and cute sailor cap brought him a beer.
"Taylor, you're not dating anyone, right? Because I have the perfect woman for you."
It wasn't that he hadn't taken Scavenger's warning to heart. But he'd thought he'd at least get to finish a beer before the matchmaking began.
His eyes shifted from woman to woman. Alexia to Livi, Sage to Eden. Lark to Frankie. Then, before he could stop himself, his gaze slid toward the door.
Taylor was a man so renowned for his bravery that he had enough medals to cover half of his chest. He was so clever at getting out of sticky situations that his friends called him Mr. Wizard. And he was so well trained that he could face down a trio of terrorist-armed suicide bombers and automatic weapons without blinking and then disarm them all with nary an explosion.
A healthy, red-blooded male, he appreciated women.
A man raised by a single mother, he respected them.
He admired their shape, their softness, their strength. He treasured their laughter and their hearts.
And he knew exactly how scary they could be. Faced with a half dozen luscious examples of womanhood, his mind raced for the best way out of a potentially explosive situation.
Before he had to, Frankie came to his rescue.
"Hey now, hold on," the bubbly redhead interrupted. "That's not fair. I've been waiting for Taylor to get back on US soil because I have a great gal I was going to set him up with."
Taylor frowned. That wasn't exactly the rescue he'd been hoping for.
"What? We're setting Taylor up?" Her eyes wide, Lark said, "I want in on this. There's this lovely woman at the gallery who'd be perfect for him."
"I can cast your astrological chart first," Sage offered, her thumb ring glinting as she leaned forward to lay her hand on his arm. "Forewarned is forearmed, and all that jazz. If you want, I can cast charts for your date, too."
That set off a cacophony so loud, Taylor couldn't tell if they were arguing, debating, agreeing or planning his demise.
"Ladies, ladies," Taylor interrupted, one palm up to echo his tone. Friendly demand. "As used as I am to women fighting over me, please, don't get yourselves into an uproar. There's no need."
"But you deserve someone special," Eden said with a warm smile.
"To hell with that. We need to get you off the market so all the single women quit trying to glom onto our guys after you're done with them," Livi said with a wicked laugh.
"Why?" Alexia shifted in her chair and angled her head to give him a narrow look. "Are you seriously involved with someone?"
Taylor opened his mouth to offer an affirmative before making the mistake of looking into Alexia's eyes. Damn it. He couldn't lie. Not to her. Not when he cared.
"I am seeing someone," he said instead, sidestepping the truth enough that guilt danced right on by. After all, he'd had a great view of a sexy blonde when he'd rolled out of her bed two weeks ago. There was the other blonde working the counter at the pizza place a few weeks back who'd provided dessert along with extra pepperoni.
Hell, he'd seen at least a dozen women in the past couple of months. On the low side, but the mission had meant he was gone for ten days.
"You're dating someone?" Alexia clarified, her narrowed eyes echoing the doubt in her tone. "Seriously dating someone?"
Taylor only hesitated for a heartbeat before widening his smile.
"Serious as a heart attack." That was about what it would take for him to date anyone seriously.
"Taylor " Livi leaned close, her new-mom instincts obviously smelling the lie. "You're telling us that you, the perpetual bachelor, are seriously dating a woman? As in, you've gone out with her more than twice, you've had a conversation that lasted longer than fifteen minutes and you'd consider introducing her to your mother."
Why did she have to bring his mother into it?
Taylor's mom had pounded the virtue of truthfulness into him from a young age. But four years of special ops training, nine in the Navy and six days as a prisoner of war should help him overcome that little issue.
So he did what he'd learned so well to do.
After exchanging looks with the other women, Alexia smiled.
"Good," she said.
"Good?" Whew. He lifted his beer, surprised that it'd gone that easy.
"Yes, good," Alexia said with a smile. "You can bring her to the bonfire Saturday night."
Taylor was fast, but he couldn't think of an excuse before Sage reached over to give him a hug.
"Just go with it or they'll be fixing you up with every single woman they know," she whispered into his ear. "Agree and escape."
Run? The idea went against everything in him, against his every belief. Then he looked at the eager faces of the women around him, saw the questions and doubts in their eyes.
"Sure. No problem." Before anyone could call him on that, he lifted his beer. "First, a refill and then I'll give her a call."
Turning on the heel of his boot, he did something he'd never thought possible. He ran.
And wondered, where the hell he was going to find a fake girlfriend?