As a troubled teen, Gregory Higgs channeled his energy into boxing instead of breaking the law. The ring gave him purpose and something to strive for. So did the Marines. Combining the two seemed like a natural fit.
Another natural fit? Reagan Robilard, the sweet athlete liaison who keeps all the fighters out of trouble and manages their PR—a job that gets more challenging when someone digs up the truth about Greg’s not-so-shiny past after equipment is vandalized at the gym.
Even if it wasn’t her job, Reagan can’t let Greg take the fall. Because passion doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to matters of the heart…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
And now, he was officially one of the team.
Gregory Higgs turned from the list on the door of Coach Ace’s office and scrubbed a hand over his face. That was that. He was officially on the Marine Corps boxing team.
Oo-rah and all that.
“Hey, is it up yet?” Graham Sweeney jogged over, beating the crowd. “The list, it’s up?”
“Yeah.” Greg stepped aside to let Graham by. “I forgot to check for your name. Sorry.”
“No problem. You were checking for your crew. I totally get it.” His friend’s finger slowly scanned down the list, pausing every so often as he noted a member of his own unit. “Damn, Monticino didn’t make it.”
Greg wasn’t sure who that was, exactly, so he said nothing.
“And . . . there.” He breathed deeply. “There we go. I’m in.”
Because he knew it mattered greatly to his friend, Greg slapped his shoulder. “Well, look at it this way, even if you’d have been cut, the commute home would have been simple.”
“Back gate, five minutes into Hubert.” Graham grinned and punched Greg’s shoulder. “Congrats, man. We did it.”
“No shocker you two managed to pull through.” Walking carefully, Brad Costa ambled toward them. From one hand, a black knee brace dangled.
Just to mess with his roommate, Greg stepped in front of the list. “Pull through what?”
Brad made a face and stopped in front of him. “Move.”
“Why?” He glanced at Graham. “What’s he want?”
“He,” Brad said sarcastically, “wants to see the list. Move.”
“It’s like he cares,” Greg added, eyes wide. “Grandpa, are you ready for your nap yet?”
Brad bent over as if he were ready to charge and Greg sidestepped, laughing. “You’re too easy, man. You’ve really got to tone it down or I’m going to have way too much fun poking at you while we’re traveling.”
“So . . .” Suddenly serious, Brad stepped up and scanned down the list. Much like Graham, he sighed when he caught his name, then went back to find the rest of his team. “Damn.”
“Two. Or maybe one and a half.”
Greg glanced at Graham. “Half?”
“Chalfent’s listed as an alternate.” Brad turned, face grim. “What the hell does that mean?”
“I think it means they send them home, but ask them to keep training while they’re there. If someone on the team gets hurt or can’t compete, they’ll bring them back.”
Brad gave a tight nod, then headed toward the mats the team used to warm up. A few younger Marines walked in to the gym and jogged toward Coach Ace’s door.
“Who else did you lose?” Greg asked, catching up.
“Tibbs. But I already knew that. There was no way they’d keep him after that debacle with the motorcycle last weekend.” Sitting down carefully, Brad began to stretch out his legs. The brace lay next to his hip, unused.
“Forgive me for my lack of a medical degree, but aren’t you supposed to be, I dunno, wearing that?” Graham pointed to the brace. Brad kicked it at him. Graham kicked it back.
“You’re kidding me, right?”
At the sound of their pint-sized drill sergeant of an athletic trainer, all three men froze. The sounds of groans and cheers from across the gym—Marines who were checking the list—echoed. As one, the three Marines turned to see Marianne Cook standing just off the mat, looking surprisingly adorable in an oversized T-shirt he could easily guess was from Brad’s collection, and some sweatpants that bunched at the ankles and were clearly about five inches too long. The toe of one running shoe tapped, and her arms were crossed. The scowl she sent Brad could have frozen the nuts off a bull.
And all at once, Greg was very glad Brad had been the one to catch the cute AT’s eye early in training camp, and not him.
“Bradley Costa, you put that brace on right now.”
Graham snickered and bent over his knees, hiding his grin.
She turned on him in a snap. “Don’t feel superior, Marine. You’re on my shit list, too. You didn’t come in so I could look at those two fingers yesterday like I asked.”
He held his left hand high, keeping his chin tucked to his chest. His voice was muffled as he said, “Here they are. Still attached.”
“Everyone’s a tough guy,” she muttered as she marched over to look at the fingers on display. “Put it on,” she demanded of Brad without even sparing him a glance. Gingerly, she probed Graham’s hand. It was only because Greg sat next to him that he heard his friend’s sharp intake of breath.
“Falling apart, both of you,” Greg said cheerfully as he pulled his heels in toward his crotch and bent over.
“Figures the guy who wasn’t even sure he wanted to make the team remains suspiciously healthy,” Brad muttered as he struggled to get the brace on over his shoe. After a minute, he gave up and took the shoe off before slipping the brace on.
More Marines joined them, spacing themselves out across the mat. Greg’s unit—teammates now—came over as they filed in to tell him they’d made the team, except the one who had been cut. He stood to shake the man’s hand, wish him luck and a reminder to add him on Facebook so they could keep in touch.
Brad gave him a baffled look as he sat back down. “You just make friends everywhere, don’t you?”
The loud, booming shout stopped conversation cold as every Marine turned his head to look toward the door. Two men stood at the coach’s door, one clearly attempting to calm the other down. The enraged one shook his friend’s restraining hand off his shoulder and pointed toward the group stretching.
“Him? They kept the old guy with a jacked-up knee and let me go? Is this some kind of joke?”
“Uh-oh,” Graham muttered under his breath. Brad groaned and got to his feet. Greg stood beside him. His fists instinctively curled; his heart raced in anticipation of a fight. He forced his hands to relax, shaking them a bit. Calm down. Calm down. After a moment, Graham stood as well, forming a three-strong wall.
The pissed-off Marine stormed toward them, and Greg had a momentary vision of a bull charging a red cape. Right before he would have slammed into Brad, Greg dove for him. Catching the man by surprise at a diagonal, he sent the two of them sprawling over the mat. He first went for restraint, but anger lent the dude too much strength.
The other man’s anger fueled his own, and despite his earlier attempt to remain calm, Greg felt his own temper snapping at the leash.
Oh, well. Practice came a bit early today.
Dodging several clumsy, if strong, blows, Greg ducked and shouldered the man back a few steps. The other Marine had strength, but if memory served, the guy was never fast enough to keep up. His jabs were like swinging tree trunks. Potentially dangerous when he could land one, but inaccurate as hell. And Greg was too fast to get hit.
Another swing and Greg tossed the man to the ground. Arms wrapped around his waist, keeping him from going back for seconds. Graham sat on the downed man’s chest, tsking his tongue.
“That was pathetic. No wonder you got cut instead of the old guy.”
“Shut up,” Brad said easily.
The man squirmed, but Graham found a pressure point in his shoulder that had the man moaning and subsiding quickly.
“Ease it down, Higgs,” Brad said quietly as Greg fisted his hands again, breathing heavily, and not from exertion. “That was my fight, anyway.”
“I needed the exercise. Not that he gave me much.” Greg forced his fingers to relax, mentally willing the adrenaline to die down. Knowing the way his body and mind worked together, he could do too much damage in two minutes with an amped-up system. He had to calm down.
They all turned as a clicking sound echoed over the hardwood floor. And the business-suit-hottie they’d all seen lurking around the gym the last week or so headed toward them on curvy legs, hips swaying in her dark skirt.
“Testosterone for breakfast. Move over, Wheaties.” The woman paused by Marianne, who had a disgusted look on her face. “Are they done now or will there be another round?”
“They’re done,” Marianne said with finality.
“Since today was an informal practice anyway, Coach Ace said I could use his office.” She pointed at Greg, or more specifically, at his still-heaving chest. “You, come with me.”
Greg—and probably every other Marine—watched as she spun on pinprick heels and sashayed across the floor toward the office.
“Anytime,” he breathed, shaking Brad’s grip off before following.
* * *
REAGAN sat down in Coach Ace’s chair, grateful to be alone for a moment while her hands were still shaking a little. “Stop that,” she ordered, but they didn’t quite hear the order. There was no way she’d be able to take notes like this, let alone type on a computer in the borrowed office. And let’s not even mention appearing to be a professional in front of a bunch of hardened warriors.
Because nothing said I’m a professional who has it all under control like limbs quaking like a tree branch in a wind storm.
A quick rap on the door made her jolt. She glanced over to see the dark blond with moves like lightning looking in. “You rang?”
“I did, yes. Please come in.” She motioned toward the only other chair in the small, cramped office that smelled like six-day-old sweat socks and must. Lovely. To hide her trembling hands, she smoothed her skirt down, then folded them in her lap. “Your name, please?”
“Higgs. Gregory Higgs.” He settled his body down into the chair and smiled easily. “Yours?”
“Reagan—sorry, Ms. Robilard,” she corrected quickly. Keep it together, Reagan. “I’m the athlete liaison for the team, and will be handling all PR, travel, and outreach efforts for you gentlemen.”
He relaxed back a bit, as if knowing her name made the entire thing less formal. One ankle crossed over his knee, and his hands rested comfortably in his lap. No tremble, she noticed with a little resentment. “That sounds like a fun job.”
No, not really. “It’s fascinating, I assure you.” Putting on her best I’m-an-adult voice, she added, “You know fighting outside the ring isn’t a wise decision, right?”
“A fighter’s a fighter. And anywhere can be a ring.” He grinned. “Back alley, barroom, living room . . . gym. All it takes is two sets of fists and a reason.”
“That right there will be our second problem to tackle with this team.”
“What’s the first?”
She grimaced. “These acts of vandalism. The last one was threatening. It’s a concern, especially as we don’t know the motive.”
“I’d say motive isn’t really the problem when the message is ‘Eat shit and die’ written on the walls of our practice area.” Greg leaned forward a little, as if imparting a secret. “But it wasn’t really the most creative threat, nor was it the most violent. Probably kids.”
“Maybe, but nonetheless, Mr. Higgs, I—”
She blinked. “No, I really—”
“Normally I’d say Lieutenant Higgs, no mister about it. But we’re not really playing the rank card here. So Greg’s good enough.”
She had to admit calling him mister, or by his rank, didn’t seem to fit the situation. “Fine. Gregory, first I would like to—”
Her ears flushed with annoyance and she puffed out an exasperated breath. The man was impossibly stubborn. But bonus, her hands had stopped shaking enough to grab her notes and leaf through them. “Greg,” she bit off. “I’m compiling a list of the current roster along with any potentially interesting snippets I can give to media outlets that might come calling or could be used in the future. Any experience you have with boxing outside of the Marines, for example. Anyone famous you trained with, any little personal anecdote you might have to add to the more factual bio I have. Any fun stories about why you joined the Marines. The media loves a human interest piece.”
He snorted at that. “Nobody gives a crap about the Marine boxing team but Marines . . . and maybe the other branches’ boxing teams. We’re not exactly professional athletes here, Mrs. Robilard.”
“It’s miss,” she corrected absently, glancing through the biography the program director had given her. Like the others, it was mostly details. Important dates, FITREPs, any awards given, and a list of the numerous deployments and TDYs. Unlike the other bios, though, where he’d had the option to fill in personal information himself—hometown, family, interests outside of boxing—he’d left it blank.
“I’ll need you to fill this out all the way.” She slid the paper toward him, doing her best to avoid touching him at all. “You left the bottom blank.”
He glanced at it, then passed it back. “I filled out all the necessary stuff. Nothing more to say.”
“There’s always something more to say. If you could just—”
“Look, Miss Robilard,” he said, standing abruptly, “I didn’t sign on to be a talking figurehead. I came here to box and have some fun with my new teammates. That’s all. If that’s not enough for the Corps, then I can just as easily head back to my home base and be done with it. It’s no skin off mine.” With that, he slipped out of the office like smoke.
“Well,” she muttered, noticing her hand had begun trembling again. “That just about sucked.”
* * *
AN hour later, Reagan’s heart rate had returned to normal and her hands had calmed down enough to sort through all the Marines who had been cut and the ones who had made the team. Those Marines who had stayed for the impromptu, off-the-books workout had been called in one by one to evaluate potential PR gold mines, and there was a list of the few she hadn’t seen yet. She was in control. A force of organizing nature. A professional, competent, capable woman. She was a cool cucumber who—
“Oh my Jesus!” Rocking back in the springy chair, Reagan grabbed the edge of the desk, praying it would keep her from being thrown to the floor. A few seconds of bronco-riding later and she was right side up. When she heard a snickering from the doorway, she shot a glare at Marianne Cook. “Why is that so funny?”
“You’d have to see it from my angle to understand the humor.” Marianne grinned and shut the door behind her, flopping into the seat across the desk. Normally, the short, spritely athletic trainer wore a Marine Corps boxing team polo and khaki bottoms of some kind, combining the practicality of being able to move with the professionalism expected of her. Today, however, she wore simple sweatpants and a large man’s T-shirt.
Feeling testy, Reagan gathered the piles she’d scattered and started stacking them back together. “Where’s the work uniform?”
“My day off equals my day to slop it up. No point in getting all dressy to watch them go at quarter speed. They’re barely breaking a sweat out there.” She tilted her head to indicate the gym beyond the office door. “Most of them are so thankful they made the team their legs are still like jelly.”
Reagan could relate. She finished stacking and slapped the last pile down a little harder than necessary. “I spoke with Brad.”
“Hmm.” Marianne picked up one of Coach Ace’s pens and started twirling it.
“We talked a bit about you and the situation with your relationship.”
“Uh-huh.” She doodled a bit on the edge of a piece of paper. Reagan shifted it slightly to the left, out of range. Marianne just settled back and watched her. Then, with a sigh, she added, “Am I supposed to be defensive about it? Reagan, you knew we were dating. He made the team on his own merit. I’m still here on my own merit. That’s really all.”
“He said as much. And you don’t have to feel defensive. I’m not the one in charge of hiring or firing anyone.” Reagan blew at the hair that threatened to fall over her eyes. Why didn’t her hair stay in its nice, professional chignon like it was supposed to? The women in the Harvard Business Review made their hair look effortlessly professional and grown-up. “But I still had to ask. I can’t just stop doing my job. If there’s a PR disaster or treasure trove, it’s my job to find it and use it.”
“Well, there’s neither. No treasure troves or disasters. We just want to date in peace.” Marianne propped one running shoe–clad foot on the corner of the coach’s desk. “As long as that’s clear.”
“It is.” Reagan debated it a moment, but then decided to try. “Wanna get drinks later?”
Marianne blinked in surprise. “I just gave you a snotty warning and you invite me to drinks? You have very weird responses.”
“I’m desperate,” Reagan said honestly.
“Well, in that case, sign me up!” Marianne said with a laugh.
Reagan’s mouth dropped open when she realized what she’d said. “No! Oh, God no. That’s not what I meant.” She let her forehead drop to the desk, lifted it and dropped it once more. “I’m awful at this.”
“If you’re asking me out on a date, then I have to tell you, it’s not going very well.”
Reagan tilted her head so she could look up with one eye. Marianne’s amused face told her the trainer was kidding. “You’re not my type.”
“Shame. Now why are you desperate?”
“I’m desperate for female company. Legit, intelligent female company. I still don’t know my way around this town, I get lost on base anytime I have to go somewhere besides here, and I’m about eight states away from anyone I know.” She sighed and settled back, smoothing down her jacket. “Desperate.”
“Sounds like it.” With a gentle smile, Marianne stood and held out a hand. “Phone.”
Reagan handed it over without protest, knowing what the other woman was up to. “Call yourself or text yourself or something so you have my number, too.”
A few seconds later, a pocket low on Marianne’s thigh began to sing. She pressed a button through the fabric of the sweats and shut the music off. “Got it. I already promised I’d go out with my friend Kara tonight—”
“Oh. Right, of course. Plans. You’ve got plans.” And here she was, horning in like a lost puppy, desperate for a belly scratch and a single word of praise. Would she ever get it right?
“But,” Marianne added, “we’d love to have you join us. Normally it’s just us chilling at her place because she’s got a son, but she sprung for a babysitter tonight. We’re painting the town red.”
“Isn’t it already red and gold everywhere around here?” Reagan asked, looking around Coach Ace’s office. The predominant pair of colors were splashed all over. The Marine Corps colors were deeply embedded everywhere.
“Good point. Nevertheless, I officially invite you to join us out. I know what it’s like being the new kid, and it’s not always easy. So it’s time to join the in crowd.”
“The in crowd, huh?” Reagan took her phone back from Marianne, feeling like she was being handed a lifeline. “That’s you and your friend?”
Marianne pfffted. “Who the hell knows? I’ll text you the location, but be ready for questions. Kara and I are going to demand to know your life story from beginning to end.”
“Right. Life story. So that will take up five minutes. What will we do with the rest of the night?” She laughed when Marianne did, feeling more relaxed since the trainer had come into the room. “Thank you.”
“No prob. I’ll see you later on tonight.” With a wave, the short woman disappeared into the gym. Not five seconds later, Reagan could hear her voice shouting, “No, Carmichael! You’re going to blow out your elbow like that! I gave you a pamphlet on that last week!”
Greg settled into what he officially referred to as his spot on Sweeney’s couch. He’d just about broken in the end cushion to his liking. Lifting his beer, he saluted his two teammates. “Well done, men.”
Sweeney lifted his own bottle in return. Costa acknowledged it with a small tip of the water bottle.
“One beer, for crying out loud. Just one.” Greg took a sip of his own and gestured toward the kitchen. “Go get one. I’m begging you.”
Brad simply shook his head and capped his bottle. “I have my reasons.”
“If you reach for your phone to check it again, I’ll sit on you and let Higgs toss it out in the front yard,” Sweeney warned as Costa reached into his pocket.
Costa’s hand froze. “You know, I’m not sure why I agreed to be dragged out here tonight. We’ve got practice in the morning, our first official practice as a team. One might think you two would want to be rested up. We’re the old ones out there. We have to keep up with the infants.”
“Speak for yourself. Everyone else has to keep up with him,” Sweeney said with a mock sneer for Greg. “Greased lightning asshole.”
“Jealous,” was all Greg said. “Don’t reach for the phone. Don’t be that guy.”
“You’ll be sorry when I read you this text,” was all Costa said, and did it anyway. “Yup. Just like I thought. The ladies are ready to mingle.”
“Ladies?” Greg and Sweeney said at the same time. Both sat up. “Which ladies?” Greg added, not ready to get his hopes up yet.
“Yeah, because Cook is cute and all, but I heard a rumor she’s spoken for,” Sweeney added, which earned him a half-hearted kick from Costa.
“She’s on some girls’ night crusade with her friend Kara and the liaison woman.”
“Yoga lady,” Sweeney breathed.
“No, Legs,” Greg corrected.
Costa looked at him, then at Sweeney and shook his head. “You’re both right. Kara is the yoga and Pilates instructor, and ‘Legs,’” he added with air quotes, “I can only assume is the liaison lady. I can’t remember her name.”
“Reagan,” Greg said automatically, then glanced between the other two men. “What? I had that interview with her today. You did, too. Weren’t you paying attention?”
“Uh-huh.” Sounding unconvinced, Sweeney stood. “I’m one beer down, so you have to drive, Costa.” He tossed Brad the keys to his SUV. “Let’s roll, gentlemen. There are ladies waiting.”
Brad joined him quickly. Greg waited a moment. He could stay here, or have them drop him off at the BOQ on the way.
But the thought of Reagan in those tight suits she wore, in those sweet heels that did impossibly sexy things to her legs, and what she might look like when she let her hair down off the clock had him jogging after them. “Wait up, I’m coming, too.”
* * *
“I’VE missed this,” Reagan said, finishing off her drink. “Okay, not the martini, maybe. That was terrible.”
Kara and Marianne both laughed. “I warned you not to order anything they had to mix,” Marianne said with a grin. “This is strictly a bottle-or-tap sort of place.”
“And yet neither of you strike me as the brewski type,” Reagan said, setting down the martini glass and pushing it away. Lesson learned there. “So why pick here?”
“It’s a hub for adorable men,” Kara said matter-of-factly. “In fact, Marianne’s mom likes to come here and scope out the scenery a few times a week.”
Marianne simply rolled her eyes.
“Oh.” Reagan glanced around, but mostly only noticed Marines out of uniform. They were impossible to miss. The oldest male who wasn’t with a woman looked like he would barely pass thirty. “Uh, how old is your mom again?”
“Old enough to drive me crazy,” Marianne muttered. “She’s been happily married for almost thirty-five years, and yet, is still boy-crazy. But can we please not spend our girl time out talking about my mother of all people?”
“Yes, let’s talk about the ever-adorable, slightly brooding Bradley Costa,” Kara said with a smirk. She sipped her beer with dainty movements that made Reagan think of a queen at high tea. “How are things with you?”
“Things are good. Great, actually.” Reaching for her own beer, Marianne froze and watched Reagan. “Sorry, is this weird? Hearing about one of the teammates and me, personally? I can stop if it’s a conflict of interest or something.”
“No, not at all. As long as it’s something I can use for media,” she added. Counting to three, she burst out laughing at the twin jaw-drops on Kara and Marianne’s faces. “Oh, come on! I’m kidding.”
Marianne shook it off and grumbled, “I knew that.”
Kara just smiled serenely. “So how about you, Reagan? Any guys waiting for you back in . . . where was it you said you were from again?”
“Wisconsin. And no, absolutely not. There was nothing for me back there.” And she meant that literally. “I mean, I had to come all this way just for this tiny job. Clearly, things were not happening in my hometown. Which works well for those who live there by choice. Me, not so much.”
“And this is your first job post college, right?”
Reagan nodded, flagging down the waitress to ask for a beer. “Yeah. I know I have to start at the ground floor, and frankly I’m glad I even got this job with zero work experience. But sometimes I think—”
“Hello, pretty ladies. Can we buy you a round?”
Marianne’s eyes grew soft as she glanced over Reagan’s shoulder. “Don’t look now, ladies, but we’re about to be invaded.”
Reagan glanced at Kara, who shrugged and scooted her chair over. If they didn’t mind girls’ night being invaded by a male, who was Reagan to argue? She was the outsider in this group.
But it wasn’t just any male who slid into the chair beside Marianne. Brad Costa, Marianne’s boyfriend, took the seat and draped an arm over the back of her chair in a proprietary, “This Is Mine” sign to any other men at the bar. The way he leaned over her while talking into her ear was about as obvious as if he’d whipped it out and peed on her to mark his territory.
The imagery both horrified Reagan and made her smother a chuckle, which ended up coming through as a snort that choked her a little. She coughed, then flew forward as a large hand thumped her on the back. Catching herself a half second before her chest flew into the table’s edge, she barked out another cough to clear her throat. Glancing behind her, ready to give hell to whoever thought that was amusing, she found herself eye to eye with none other than Gregory “just Greg” Higgs.
“Sorry about that,” he said sincerely, sitting beside her. “Didn’t mean to hit you so hard. I thought you were choking on an olive or something.”
There was no way to be mad at a guy who’d had noble intentions . . . even if she might be sore in the morning from his help. “It’s okay. I’m fine.”
“Good.” He hesitated, then took his hand off her back. Was it her imagination, or had he grazed his fingertips across her shoulder?
Pull yourself together, Reagan. You’re an adult, act like it. He was just being helpful.
Graham Sweeney—who Reagan only recognized because he was another of the main team leaders—sat down beside Kara, who scooted over a few more inches to give him space. If he noticed the subtle don’t-touch-me vibe he didn’t say so. Kara, for however sweet she was, definitely had the ability to put on her Cloak of Solitude when she wanted to.
“So what’s everyone drinking?” Graham asked. Kara and Marianne immediately held up their beer bottles as Brad waved down their server.
“Did you want another martini?”
The question, so close to her ear, made Reagan shiver. His breath was warm, warmer even than the air in the bar. She turned to answer him, only to find Greg’s face a mere two inches from hers. She could actually lick his lips right now without moving.
And again with the poor thoughts, Reagan.
She settled back in her chair and shook her head. “No, definitely not. That thing was . . .”
“Bad?” Marianne suggested.
“Horrible,” was Kara’s offering.
“Lethal,” Reagan decided on. “Lethal, with a deadly aftertaste. I’ll just have a diet Coke.”
“Driving home?” Greg asked as they gave their orders to the server, who jotted them down without a word and left the same way. “We can drop you off if you want to grab another drink or two. I hear it’s a special ladies’ night out.”
“Of which it is no longer just ladies,” Kara said pointedly.
“Sorry,” Marianne said with a flushed smile. “I told him where we were and, well . . .” Brad nuzzled against her neck and whispered something in her ear, which made her smile grow and her flush deepen.
Greg snickered, Graham rolled his eyes, and Kara and Reagan chose to look at each other rather than the new lovebirds. Kara’s lips rolled in, as if trying to keep from smiling.
Of course they wanted to spend time with each other. If Reagan had a boyfriend as cute as Brad, she’d be with him, too.
Brad’s phone rang, and he reached into his pocket for it. Graham booed, and Greg threw a napkin. “We just got here, man. Put it away.”
“Could be important.”
“Could be his mom,” Graham said with a grin. “Tell her I said hi.”
“You know his mom?” Kara asked, surprised as she turned to Graham.
“No, but that’s not the point. It’s just a thing.” Graham started to say something else, then froze as he watched Brad’s face turn from jovial to grim. “Hold on, looks like we’ve got a problem. What’s up, man?”
“Jesus H.,” Brad muttered. “Someone slashed Tressler’s tires outside his barracks.” He stuffed the phone back in his pocket. “And according to him, his wasn’t the only one hit. Two of your guys got slashed too, Sweeney.”
“Any of mine?” Greg asked, standing beside Reagan.
“Didn’t say so, but who knows? Let’s head out there and see what’s up.” Brad went to the bar to grab their tabs.
“Looks like it’s back to ladies’ night,” Graham said with a shrug. “Sorry for busting in and running out again.” He bent down to give Marianne a kiss on the cheek, then waved to Reagan. For Kara, he tipped his head, then headed for his car.
“I’ll go pay my tab and be right there.” Reagan stood.
Greg grabbed her elbow, stopping her from moving. “There’s no need for you ladies to call it quits. Stay.”
“If it concerns the team, it concerns me. Maybe it’s nothing, but with everything else that’s gone on, I want to make sure of it.” She gave his grip a pointed look, and he released her. She took two steps, then turned back around. “Uh, where exactly are the barracks on base again?”
Marianne laughed. Kara groaned. Brad came back to give Marianne a quick kiss. “You can follow us, if you want,” he added to Reagan.
She bit her lip. “I just have to pay the tab and I’ll meet you outside.”
He nodded and followed Sweeney out.
She waited for Greg to go, but he didn’t. Instead, he followed her to the bar while she paid for her one drink and left a tip. Finally, when he stalked her out to the parking lot, she halted by her car door. It occurred to her then, as he pressed in close to her side, that she was almost an inch taller than him in her heels. “What? Why are you playing the creeper game?”
The corner of his lips twitched, but he gave her a serious look. “Know where you’re going?”
“I’m following you, I guess. Past that, I’m pretty much clueless.”
“Okay then.” He went to open her car for her as soon as she’d hit the unlock button, waited for her to slide in, then jogged around to the other side and got into the passenger seat.
“Uh, hi?” Reagan stared at him. “Going somewhere?”
“You don’t know where you’re going, it’s dark, and you could easily lose Brad driving Sweeney’s SUV. So I’ll just ride with you and make sure you get there okay.”
She glared at him a moment. “Purely out of the goodness of your own heart, huh?”
He held his hands up, a boyishly innocent face on. “Hey, I’m a civil servant, what can I say?”
Right. She twisted to put her purse in the back, recoiling a little when her breasts brushed against his biceps. Her car was small—read: affordable—and he was, well, he wasn’t the biggest guy but he was still an imposing male. Plus, her boobs were larger than the average woman’s, so this had all the hallmarks of a disaster.
“Just head for the main gate—you know where the main gate is, right?”
She shot him a look that warned him to lock down the idiotic comments ASAP.
Smart man that he was, he heeded the call. “Get to the main gate and then we’ll go from there. Shouldn’t take us more than ten minutes, fifteen if there’s weird traffic.”
“The back gate isn’t anywhere close to here, is it?” she asked as she pulled into reverse and backed out of the parking spot.
“Not even remotely.”
“So why is this bar called the Back Gate if we’re so close to the front gate?”
“Someone’s idea of a joke, I guess.”
* * *
GREG’S nerves were on high alert and had been since the second he’d ever-so-smoothly thumped Reagan’s back. That delightful move had earned him the Dumbass of the Night award. And the hits just kept on coming. But fate had thrown him a bone and given him a very good reason to get the luscious Reagan Robilard alone in her car.
“Just keep driving straight now,” he said as they pulled through the main gate and past the sentry.
“There’s nowhere to go but straight,” she pointed out.
“Could turn right here for the hospital.”
“I don’t want that,” she said, her voice tight.
“So keep driving straight.”
She growled a little, the sound so cute and feminine he wanted to lean over and kiss the tip of her nose. But he resisted. One stupid move a night was his limit . . . hopefully.
“Did you have a good night out?”
She smiled, which he couldn’t see so much as hear in her voice. “I was, until a few weirdos came and crashed all the fun.”
“Weirdos?” Ready to defend her honor, despite being too late, he sat up straighter. “Who? What’d they look like? Did they bother you?”
“That would have been you three,” she answered with a smug grin.
Oh. Right. He let his head thump back against the headrest. Damn. She had a wicked sense of humor on her. “How’s the job working out?”
“It’s far more action-oriented than I imagined, that’s for sure. I never thought I’d be driving out in the dark to inspect slashed tires, or figuring out who keeps vandalizing the gym. I feel like I stepped into a Nancy Drew book instead of my first real job.”
“First real job, huh?” She flushed slightly, the tint barely perceptible thanks to the street lamps. “Just graduated, I take it?”
“I did, yes.” Her voice deepened when she wanted to sound more professional, he noted. “Took me a little longer because I had to work full time while I went through college, and I couldn’t always take a full course load. But I’m a proud graduate and ready to use my degree.”
“Good to know.” How long had she practiced that defensive little speech in her mind in case someone asked? He settled back in his seat. “You’ll turn here, then make another and the barracks will be dead ahead.”
She finished the drive and pulled into a space at the back of the lot next to Sweeney’s SUV. “I should have brought a camera or something,” she said, looking around her car. Her voice was higher again, telling him she was nervous. “I don’t know if I’ll need photos but . . .” She bit her lip, and he put a hand over hers on the gear shift between them.
“Don’t sweat it. We’ve all got cell phones with cameras. Between all of us we’ll have plenty of photos.”
“Oh. Right.” She closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. A breath that pushed her more-than-a-handful breasts against the tight confines of her shirt. “Sorry, I’m nervous. This isn’t the sort of thing they cover in marketing class.”
“You’re fine. You’ve got it.” He stepped out, then debated going to open her door. She was, for all intents and purposes, on the job now. Would she see that as stepping over a boundary? Be angry he’d done something she could do for herself?
While he internally debated, she opened her own door and stepped into the warm night air, smoothing her dark pencil skirt down over her hips as she did so. And thank God for skirts that hugged those curves. She was a damn work of art, a true hourglass. He let her get a step in front of him as she walked toward the group congregated on the sidewalk in front of the building, just to give himself another minute of appreciation at the way her hips swung while she walked.
“Good evening, Marines.” Reagan’s voice deepened into a husky, sexy tone that had Greg fighting an erection in the parking lot. “Problems with some tires, I hear?”
She listened as the guys explained having made it home with no problem, parking, then finding the tires slashed when they’d come out to get dinner. She took notes on her phone, getting everyone’s license plates, makes and models, which tires were slashed and where they’d been parked in the lot.
“And nobody else’s tires were slashed? The people who’d parked next to you, for example?”
“Only tires we see slashed are from the team’s,” Tressler said, looking supremely pissed and ready to brawl with anyone who gave him a wrong look. The hothead was in for a rude awakening in the ring if he couldn’t keep himself together and shield those emotions better. “Except Chalfent, his got hit, too, but he didn’t make the team. He leaves in the morning.”
At Brad’s growl, Tressler’s eyes widened. “Which, I mean, he should have,” he finished, then shot Chalfent a look. “Sorry, man. That’s not what I meant.”
“I know,” the tall, gangly man said quietly. “It’s okay.”
“So what you’re saying is the person who did this appears to have enough information about the team to know who to target, but not enough to know who was cut this afternoon,” Reagan said quickly, cutting off any potential problems at the knees. “Someone who must not have that much of an inside track to know better.”
“Yeah, that’s what we’ve been thinking. You’re good.” Tressler nodded and grinned, which made Greg take a protective step toward Reagan’s back. She glanced over her shoulder with a grouchy expression, but he didn’t back up.
Tressler caught his eye, narrowed his brow slightly, then shrugged. At least the kid wasn’t a total moron, even if he was a cocky little shit. He picked up on the subtle back-off vibes fast enough.
After she’d gathered all the official documentation, she asked who had called the authorities. The younger Marines all looked at each other, each one shaking his head in turn.
“Nobody?” Reagan glanced between them, then fisted her hands on her hips. “Not one of you thought to report this? Your insurances alone will require that much.”
“We thought we should wait to see what these guys wanted to do,” another Marine—one of Sweeney’s, Greg thought—said. “We figured it was their call, because things are so weird right now with the gym and the training room getting trashed.”
“Can’t fault them for thinking it through,” Greg muttered by Reagan’s ear. “Cut them some slack. They’re babies.”
She turned to cut him a frosty glance. “Half of them are just a year or two younger than me, and a few are my age.”
Whoops. He hadn’t considered that. She’d mentioned being a recent graduate, but he’d simply assumed she’d gone back to school after working for a few years. So she was what, twenty-four? Twenty-five?
Not that he cared. He was only twenty-eight himself. But she gave the illusion of being older than she apparently was. Probably the same way she gave the illusion of being taller, more in control, more sure of herself. She projected it perfectly with wardrobe and attitude.
In full control now, Reagan started to pace in front of the group. “Let’s go ahead and talk to the . . . the . . .” She waved her hand in the air. “The base law enforcement . . . military police.”
“MPs,” Greg added quietly by her ear.
“Thank you. MPs,” she said, not looking at him. “Let’s talk to the MPs and get that situated and on the record. While we’re waiting for them, we need to make some calls for rides to get you guys to practice tomorrow. Once that’s done, we’ll make appointments for you to get your tires replaced at whatever place your insurances will approve. We’ll stagger the repairs so we can get them fixed without jeopardizing your training schedules.”
She started tapping at her phone, and Greg nearly had to pick his jaw up off the floor. He had the distinct feeling she’d left Reagan in the car and brought Ms. Robilard with her to work. Night and day difference.
And the other men noticed it, too. They scrambled to follow her directions, making calls or looking information up on their phones, taking photos and texting people about rides.
The woman knew how to light a fire under a group of Marines.
With a satisfied, if a little grim, smile, Reagan nodded and clapped her hands once to get everyone’s attention. They stopped talking immediately, and Greg nearly laughed at the image of a kindergarten teacher getting the attention of a dozen five-year-olds. “Right, I’m going to take some photos before I go, and then I will see everyone tomorrow.” With a steely stare, she added, “This does not excuse anyone from practice in the morning. You’ve got plenty of time to arrange for a ride, so do it.”
Most mumbled a quiet, “Yes, ma’am,” before she walked off to start taking photos of each car’s slashed tires. Greg followed behind, hands tucked behind his back to keep from thrusting her against one of those vehicles and kissing her senseless. That was, without a doubt, one of the hottest things he’d seen in years. Her ability to take charge in the blink of an eye, command a group of hard-ass Marines, and do it in a sexy pair of heels and body-hugging skirt . . .
She did a dainty little squat, keeping her knees primly together as she angled her phone toward the rear tire of a pickup truck. Her skirt stretched tight over her curvy ass.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s exactly how she commanded their attention so well. Hmm.
“Did you need something else?”
His concentration broken, Greg blinked and uttered the ever-intelligent, “What?”
“You were staring.” Reagan took another photo, the flash momentarily blinding him, then looked over her shoulder. “Did you still need something?”
“A ride back to the BOQ would be nice.”
“Your friends are still here. I assume that’s why. You could go with them.” Snap, snap.
“But then how would you get home?”
“GPS,” she answered easily. “It’s easy enough to key in ‘Home’ as my destination from an unknown place. Not so easy to key in the address of ‘Barracks, Camp Lejeune.’”
Okay, she had a point there. “It wouldn’t be very gentlemanly for me to ditch you now.”
“You’re not ditching, you’re going home to get some rest. I’d actually prefer that, to be honest. The more rested you are, the better you train.” She stood, teetering for just a second before he grabbed her arm to steady her. The short-sleeve blouse she wore gave him the chance to feel the soft skin of her forearm under his thumb. He brushed once over the pulse on the inside of her elbow, felt it hammering and knew she wasn’t nearly as cool as she played.
“You want me to go home and get some beauty rest?” He lowered his voice, stepping in, wondering if she was ever without those damn heels—which yes, did great things for her ass—so he could actually look down at her instead of up an inch. “I don’t think you do.”
“And that’s why I’m the brains of this operation,” she said lightly, stepping back. “Someone has to think about the greater good. Besides,” she added, picking her purse up from the side mirror she’d hung it on to take photos, “you’ll need your strength for battle tomorrow.”
“It’s training, not battle.”
“I wasn’t talking about practice. I was talking about dealing with me.” And with that sassy parting shot, she slid between two cars and disappeared to continue her photo documentary.
“Higgs, let’s go man. This day’s a big cluster and I’m ready to hit the rack.” Brad appeared by his elbow and tugged lightly on his neck. “Sweeney’s dropping us back by the BOQ on his way home.”
“Oh, joy.” He followed along, not at all willingly.
* * *
REAGAN watched through the lens of the digital video camera, taking in as much of the action in the mock training ring as she could without losing definition and focus. The equipment was primitive at best. Though at this point, she should probably be glad she was given a digital anything. God knew, she could probably have expected a VHS recorder to take video with.
“Getting any good shots?” Coach Ace walked up to stand beside her. “I know my guys are preening like pretty peacocks for the camera.”
Reading between the lines, she closed the lens and picked up the tripod she’d paid for herself. Oh, how many pairs of shoes she could have bought for the price of that tripod . . . “You think I’m distracting the men.”
“Not think, know. They’re all under thirty, most of them single, and they are pumped up on adrenaline and testosterone and ego from having made the team. Hell yes, you’re a distraction.” Coach Ace scanned her from head to toe in a gesture that was definitely meant to be derisive rather than sexual.
Reagan placed one hand over her chest and fluttered her lashes. “Ooh la la. If only I’d remembered to wear my frumpiest outfit to disguise my feminine wares so as not to distract the menfolk from their important endeavors. However shall I earn your forgiveness, good sir?”
The head coach snorted out something she hoped was humor, then crossed his arms to watch the men spar. Another group worked cardio upstairs along the catwalk with Coach Cartwright, while a third was in the adjoining weight room with Coach Willis. Though she would rather bite off her own arm than admit it, she knew Greg Higgs was with the group in the weight room. That shouldn’t matter. She was here for the team, not one Marine.
One very fine, very delicious, very funny . . . Marine.
“Coach Ace,” she said slowly, packing up the camera in the case at her feet, “I have a job to do. I know you do, too. But we have to work together, not constantly butt heads.”
“It’s not hard to avoid that.” He picked up the case when she reached for it, taking it over to the side where she’d stashed her tote bag full of folders. “You stay out of the way and do your PR voodoo magic outside the gym.”
Tread carefully, Robilard. “That might have been how it worked in the past—”
“It was,” he agreed firmly.
“But that’s not how I plan on running things.”
She watched the coach, trying her best to gauge his reaction based on his expression. She would have been better off trying to guess what a brick wall was thinking. His face curiously blank, Coach Ace shrugged and walked to his office, closing the door quietly behind him.
“Was that acceptance, or denial?” she muttered as she packed up the camera.
Getting along with the coaching staff wasn’t specifically required, but it would be a hell of a lot easier on everyone if they could come to terms over the parameters of her job. She refused to run back to her own supervisor and tattle on the uncooperative coaching staff. So it was up to her to figure out how to get everyone on the same page.
And add that to the ever-growing list of things she needed to do better. She really had to pick up her game.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Jeanette Murray
“Jeanette Murray writes a believable story that drew me in from the first page.”—Cocktails and Books
“Fun to read…Entertaining, thanks to Murray’s insights into the attraction of opposites.”—Booklist
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Against the Ropes by Jeanette Murray is the second book in her First To Fight series. It is the continuing story of the Marine boxing team we met in the first book, Below the Belt, and this book focuses on the story of Gregory Higgs and Reagan Robilard. Well-paced, great characters, with the element of suspense woven throughout these marines and their women will keep you enthralled page after page. Reagan is trying to keep the publicity for the boxing team in a positive light but with the vandal/s out to get them not only on base, but out of town as well and now a reporter eager to smear their reputations with anything they can find her job has just become infinitely more difficult. Gregory didn't think that being on the team was a big deal. Until he made it and the sense of belonging began to seep in. Add in Reagan Robilard and he found there was nowhere else he wanted to be but right there wherever she was. With a happily ever after, this story was fantastic. The element of suspense is ongoing and I can't wait for the next story... Graham & Kara... Fight to the Finish.
What do you get when you have a bunch of hot, sexy Marines who are also on the Marine Corp Boxing Team, the women they love and/or are falling for, some mystery and suspense centered around vandalism and pranks that are escalating, and just the testosterone charged air that fills the the gym where the hotties practice? A great story, that's what. Against the Ropes is Greg and Regan's story. He's one of the men on the boxing team who has been around a while, and who the others look up to. He has his secrets though, and they center around a past that haunts him. He's pleasantly surprised when into the gym and into his life walks the new PR Liaison, Reagan Robilard, who's spunk, high heels, and sexy voice have him reeling. Their relationship was a fun and romantic and I enjoyed watching it progress over the course of the book. I especially enjoyed Reagan's character. She not only had a lot of personality, she was a really stand-up person and was very loyal as well. The secondary characters also added a lot to the book as well. If you are a fan of sports-themed romance and/or contemporary romance, then Against the Ropes is something you'd enjoy checking out.
3.75 stars--AGAINST THE ROPES is the second instalment in Jeanette Murray's contemporary, adult FIRST TO FIGHT military, romance series focusing on a group of Marine Corps boxers and the women they love. This is Marine/boxer Gregory Higgs, and PR representative Reagan Robilard's storyline. Told from several third person points of view AGAINST THE ROPES continues to focus on the destruction, and threats against the Marine boxing team with the attacks becoming more personal and aggressive. As the PR representative for the boxing team, it is Reagan's job to spin the press but the continued attacks and threats against their own find Reagan falling behind when the attacks become personal and Greg Higgs is a target for both the press and the harassment. Several purposefully planted clues take aim at Greg and his 'colourful' past, and Reagan's job is on the line when she is unable to keep a handle of the negative PR> The relationship between Greg and Reagan is one of mutual attraction that finds our trying to keep secret their liaisons and personal life. While Reagan continues to push Greg for information about his earlier life, Reagan soon discovers that the man with whom she has fallen in love has a secret and dangerous past she knew nothing about. The $ex scenes are intimate and romantic; there are no erotic sexual situations and no graphic sexual language. AGAINST THE ROPES is an ensemble storyline with several of the previous storyline characters playing supporting and secondary roles. Marianne and Brad (Below the Belt #1) have a strong presence throughout the story, as does Marine Graham who begins to take an interest in Kara-the team's yoga instructor. The banter and camaraderie between the boxers is friendly; there is a definite support system in place. The world building continues to focus on the preparation for the upcoming boxing matches, but begins to aggressively turn its' attention to the investigation into who or what is responsible for the acts of violence and betrayal against the Marine boxing team. I do have an issue with the unreality as it pertains to a lack of security and closed circuit monitors on a Marine base with visible MPs who apparently are not doing their job. The situation is disconcerting under the circumstance and what could very well be terrorist threats at another time seems to be all but ignored by the people in charge-they are quick to blame a PR rep for the trouble and not actively looking into the who, what and why. The situation, as presented, is not believable as it pertains to the investigation and blame. AGAINST THE ROPES is an entertaining storyline. The premise is engaging with colourful and charismatic characters. The romance is predictable but seductive; the happily ever after has yet to be revealed as the Marine Corps boxing team continues to struggle with threats from an unknown source. There are no active military scenes or sequences; the series focuses on the boxing team and the person(s) responsible for the attacks.