There's more than one way to win in the debut of the First to Fight series...
Athletic trainer Marianne Cook is ready to do whatever it takes to turn the men of the Marine Corps boxing team into fighting machines. After all, her ultimate goal is to land a job training professional athletes. But when she notices a certain hard-bodied marine trying to hide an injury, Marianne realizes that she’ll have to use covert tactics to get him talking.
First Lieutenant Brad Costa has waited years for the chance to fight for a spot on the Marine Corps boxing team, knowing he has to push twice as hard to get half as far as his younger counterparts. Brad tries to downplay his injuries to the attractive trainer who has his dreams in her hands, but Marianne isn’t buying it. Maybe it’s time to deploy some targeted flattery.
As Brad and Marianne’s attraction turns red-hot, there’s more than one person having a hard time keeping their eyes on the prize…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
First Lieutenant Bradley Costa tossed his pack on the bed and sank to the mattress beside it. Fucking hell, what had he walked himself into?
The best—and most terrifying—opportunity of his life, that’s what. He stood and shook his hands, a habit he’d yet to break, to release the nerves. He couldn’t let it get to him, or else he’d be screwed before he hit the gym on the first day of training camp.
A knock at his open door jarred him from his self-induced pity party. He turned and saw a guy holding his own ruck, wearing a civilian “uniform” of khakis and a button-down polo shirt that was similar to what he’d worn on his own trip to Camp Lejeune.
“Hey, you Costa?”
“Yeah.” Brad strode over to shake the outstretched hand. “You Higgs?”
“One and the same.” The other man grinned, then squeezed a little in friendly warning before letting go. He was an inch or two shorter than Brad, with a more wiry build. But there was strength in the grip, and Brad didn’t doubt the man could likely run circles around an opponent. Pushing past Brad, Higgs walked in and observed the tiny room, nodding in acceptance. “Seems we’re lucky roomies while we’re here.”
“Seems like.” Brad watched him warily. “I’ve claimed this one. Yours is that way.” What the hell was this guy doing? The small single bedrooms of the Bachelor Officer Quarters were connected by a tiny sitting room and shared bathroom. Obviously, this was his room.
Making himself at home, Higgs tossed his pack next to Brad’s on the bed and sat in the chair. “I like company.”
Oh, good. He got the Chatty Cathy for a roommate. He could wait it out. He went to his own ruck and started unpacking.
“So you think you’ll be here awhile, huh?”
God, he hoped so. He glanced up as he organized the top drawer with his workout gear. “Wouldn’t have made the trip otherwise.”
“I’m not big on unpacking, myself.” Higgs stretched and laced his fingers over his stomach. “I figure I’ll just leave things the way they are for now. See if I like the setup. If not, easier to ditch and go if my shit isn’t spread out from here to kingdom come.”
Brad snorted. “What, like you’re just going to walk away from this if you don’t like how it’s playing out?”
“Why not? Life’s too short to do shit you don’t like.”
Brad’s hands tightened into fists around the top drawer. He’d tried for years, nearly a decade, to get the chance to come to training camp for the Marine Corps boxing team. Had been working for the goal—even just indirectly—since watching his father compete at age six. For the next twenty-three years, the goal had been at the top of his bucket list. And this moron was willing to just walk away from the opportunity?
And yet, if he did, it would be one less fucker Brad had to step over to make it onto the team. He shut the drawer and shrugged. “Probably right.”
Higgs watched him for a minute, then snorted and stood. Most likely disappointed Brad didn’t invite him to stay to paint their toenails and gossip about boys. As Higgs grabbed his bag, he said, “A bunch of the guys who arrived today are heading down to Back Gate.”
Back Gate, as anyone who had been stationed at Lejeune knew, was a well-known bar frequented by Marines in their off time. Ironically enough, it was accessed the easiest from the main gate. “Okay then.”
Training day one started at oh-seven hundred tomorrow morning. And these jokers were heading out to get wasted the night before?
“Oh, yeah, I’ll come. I’ll even drive.”
He wouldn’t miss this train wreck for the world.
* * *
MARIANNE Cook slid into one of the remaining booths at the Back Gate, and wondered why, God, why, had she agreed to meet here for drinks with her mother again?
That’s right, because her mother was boy-crazy. The woman—half her namesake—was nearly sixty, and still got giggly around hot men young enough to be her sons, if she’d had sons. So meeting in a bar where Marines hung out after hours was, quite frankly, Mary Cook’s idea of a perfect night out.
Fortunately, her father was not only aware of Mary’s boy-craziness but found it amusing. And since her mother would never even consider cheating on her father, Marianne found the entire thing amusing as well.
Until she was an unwilling accomplice.
The server stopped by, a little harried and definitely short on patience, and took Marianne’s simple order of a bottle of light beer and an ice water and left. Knowing her mother, she’d be zooming in about twenty minutes late. The water would make the beer last longer. Only one, since she would be driving home.
A shout, a few jeers and a male insult erupted from the bar area. She glanced over for a moment. Nothing much to see. A group of Marines doing that weird man thing where harassment passes off as bonding time. Add in a few beers and it just cranks the volume up. Nothing she hadn’t seen before. Though she’d missed the sight since she moved down to Wilmington for college, then stayed there for her first post-grad job.
And, she realized with a smug smile as the server wordlessly delivered her beer and water, nothing she wouldn’t be seeing up close and personal, for a few months, at least. She was about to pick up the glass of water when her mother breezed in.
“Sorry, I’m late, I know.” Mary slid in the booth in front of her. Before Marianne could lift the water, her mother snatched it from her hand and took a gulp. “Better.”
“I’m glad,” Marianne said dryly, taking the water from her mother and having a sip for herself. “What held you up this time?”
“Myself, of course. Then I was late leaving, and Western was a parking lot.” Mary patted her hair, a mix of silver and blonde much like Marianne’s just plain blonde. Where her mother kept her hair longer—eschewing the tradition of cutting it shorter as she got older—Marianne had chopped hers off to a short bob in college. They shared the same icy blue eyes, though. “Had to spruce up a bit, didn’t I?”
“So you could turn all the men’s heads.” Marianne smiled and shook her head while her mother gave her order—a glass of wine—to the server when she buzzed by. “Daddy’s a tolerant man.”
“My favorite kind. As long as I come home to him at the end of the night, he’s never considered it a big deal to flirt. There’s never harm in flirting with a cute young man.” Mary’s light eyes laughed as she took another sip of water from her daughter’s glass. “I thought I taught you that.”
“Among other things.” Marianne waited for the server to plop her mother’s subpar wine down and scoot away before saying, “I got all settled into the apartment. Still have a few more boxes to get to, but I should be done with those tonight.”
“I’m so glad you’re back in town.” Her mother took a sip and grimaced. “This is awful.”
“You picked the location,” she reminded her mother, taking a sip of the much safer selection of bottled beer. “And you remember I’m only here for a while, right? I’m not moving back to Jacksonville permanently. When the All Military games are done, my job’s over.”
“But you’re here for now. And that makes both of us happy.” Mary laid a hand on her daughter’s arm, and Marianne couldn’t help but smile back. She loved her parents; adored them. She knew she was fortunate to have been raised by people who taught her a love of independence tempered by a healthy dose of respect for those who reared you.
“I know. But if this job leads to bigger and better things . . .” She shrugged. No big deal.
Except it was. That was the entire reason she’d left her old job, taken the chance and moved back to Jacksonville. It was the opening to making her dreams come true.
“I think if you—oh!” Mary grabbed for her wineglass as something jarred their table. But her flushed, slightly annoyed look smoothed into sweet cream and dimples when she looked up and found a handsome young Marine standing before their table. And there was no doubt he was a Marine. They were impossible to miss. His dark, almost black hair was in a razor-sharp high and tight, his face was baby-smooth and he was wearing the unofficial off-duty uniform of a clean polo shirt and nice jeans.
“Sorry, ladies.” He grinned lopsidedly, dark eyes lighting up, and Marianne instantly knew he was, if not drunk, well on his way to becoming so. “Didn’t mean to bump the table.”
“It’s fine.” Marianne smiled briefly, then turned to her mother, who was smiling not-so-briefly.
“Totally understandable. It’s just so crowded in here, isn’t it?” Mary played with the thin gold band necklace she wore every day—her own patented flirtatious gesture. Marianne rolled her eyes into her water glass.
“Maybe it was just the sight of two such beautiful sisters,” the younger man said with a cheeky grin.
Marianne tried not to laugh, she really did. But a snort worked its way up. Seriously. The guy was twelve. Okay, fine, twenty-one, max. But boy, did he have some good, classic lines. Her mother glared.
“Ignore my sister,” Mary said firmly.
“Oh, please,” Marianne muttered.
“Can I buy you ladies another round to apologize?” He motioned a hand toward the sliver of bench left by Marianne, silently asking if he could also have a seat. She ignored the gesture and looked straight ahead, past her mother’s shoulder.
Seriously. Hot Marines. Been there, done that. Okay, not done that, done that. That sounded wrong. But you couldn’t grow up in Jacksonville and not have had a teenage fantasy or two about the constant influx of good-looking, uniform-wearing hotties driving through the front gate every morning. Naturally, if she’d actually dated any of them during her teenage years, her father would have killed her.
She was older now. More mature. Immune to the hype. Could easily see through that cocky you-want-me grin the infant wore.
And yet her mother ate it up with a spoon. “You don’t have to do that.” But she scooted over a few inches.
“I insist. I . . . need to . . .” A hand clamped down on his shoulder. His speech slowed down—way down—and watching the young man’s face change was almost like watching a gear physically click into place when he turned to see who had stepped up behind him.
“Ladies.” Another man—only this time, he was a man—stepped up beside the infant lady-killer. “I hope my friend here isn’t bothering you.” He slung an arm around the other Marine’s shoulder in a grip that even Marianne could see was designed to restrain.
“We’re fine,” Marianne said easily. The infant was a little obnoxious, but she didn’t want him in trouble. “Really, no harm done at all.”
“This just makes things perfect, doesn’t it?” Mary said cheerfully, missing the undertones. “A Marine for each of us.”
“Marine? What gave it away?” The taller, older one smiled easily, but his grip on the young man never loosened. Like his younger friend, he wore the same distinctive military markers—medium brown hair in a high and tight, polo tucked into jeans without any designer rips or holes—but it wasn’t so much a definition of who he was as it was just something he wore comfortably. He was probably in his late twenties, early thirties tops, she’d guess. Not old. But old enough to flip a switch from thinking What a silly little infant over to Oh, boy, that’s good to look at.
And God. Hadn’t she just told herself Marines did nothing for her? Bad, Marianne. Bad.
“The high and tights, of course. And the impressive . . . physiques. Impossible to miss!” Mary ran a hand through her hair, smoothing it behind one ear. “Will you join us?”
“I think we’re quitting for the night. We’ve got an early day tomorrow. Don’t we, Tressler?” He said it so mildly, Marianne wouldn’t have picked up on the not-an-order order if she hadn’t been watching their body language.
A little sullen now, like a child being told playtime is over, Tressler gave them a weak smile. “Thanks for the conversation, ladies. Sorry to interrupt your evening.”
The other one waved and led his now-subdued friend off.
She couldn’t help watching him as he approached the bar to pass off the man-child to another Marine while he settled his tab. Damn, now that was an ass made for jeans. The dark blue denim stretched comfortably over a butt she could easily guess would be tight enough to bounce a quarter off of.
“You’re staring,” her mother murmured.
Marianne snapped her gaze back. “Am not.”
With a small smile, her mother traced the rim of her wineglass with a fingertip. “You know the reason I find it fun to flirt with men? Men I have no intentions of being with, and whom I know have no intentions of being with me? When I’m happily married to your father, and have been for almost thirty years?”
“I’m not sure I want to,” she muttered, and killed the bottle with one last gulp.
“It’s because it makes me feel feminine and pretty. A little alive. Your father pays compliments, but it’s nice to be . . . seen by other people. It’s fun, and harmless. And it makes me happy. What makes you happy?”
“Work.” The answer was easy enough, on the tip of her tongue before she could even think. “I love my job.”
“Of course you do. But I don’t see you looking at athletic tape and Icy Hot the way you just looked at that young man’s ass just now.”
“Things you never want to hear your mother say,” Marianne said to the ceiling.
Her mother raised a light brow. “Am I wrong?”
She was saved from having to answer when the server sat down another light beer and glass of wine. Marianne waved her hand to catch the woman’s attention before she made herself scarce again. “We didn’t order these.”
“Sent over from the bar. Guy says he’s sorry for the trouble and hopes you weren’t offended by his friend’s intrusion.”
“Oh, that sweet boy.” Mary gulped the last of her first wine and pushed the empty glass to the server before reaching for the fresh one. “He shouldn’t have.”
“No, he shouldn’t have. We don’t need drinks,” Marianne said quickly, stalling her mother’s arm. “Can you tell him we appreciate the gesture but—”
“Nope. He’s already gone. And that was definitely no boy. They’re paid for, so enjoy.” The server winked and headed back to the bar.
So the other one—the one not using horrible pickup lines—had sent them. As an apology for his friend? Or more? She found herself searching the thinning crowd around the bar, just in case. But the server was right, both he and his younger companion—along with most of the crowd they’d come with—were gone.
“Looking for our mystery Marine, are we?”
She threw a crumpled up cocktail napkin at her mother. “Don’t start. And I can’t drink this. I’m driving home. My boxes aren’t going to unpack themselves. I’ve got a to-do list a mile long, and I want to have some pamphlets ready to print for—”
“Oh, relax.” Mary leaned back in the booth. “Sip slowly, drink water, and slow down for five minutes. You’re having a drink with your mother; it can’t be that sinful.”
She debated for a good twenty seconds before grabbing the bottle and having a fresh sip of cool, refreshing beer. Fine. Five minutes, then back to real life.
Mystery Marine, thanks for the drinks, but no thank you.
* * *
TRESSLER eyed Brad with childish mutiny from a corner of the wrestling mat. “You didn’t have to fuck up my night, man.”
Not even minute one of training camp, and already Brad was making lifelong friends. He closed his eyes and stretched his back on the mat. Tuck right knee to chest, rotate back until crossing body, and feel the stretch. Stare up at ceiling and not at idiot.
They were in some semblance of a semicircle, waiting for the coaches to begin day one. There were several sleepy eyes in the crowd, and a few who looked like they’d been pushed out of bed with a bulldozer. And of course Tressler, who would have been worse off if Brad hadn’t stepped in and “encouraged” him to make an early night of it.
But did he get thanks for being the mature, levelheaded one and keeping him from making an ass of himself? No. Of course not. Maybe he should have let the kid keep talking to the mother-daughter combo. He would have gotten a healthy slap eventually.
Brad had almost done just that. Walked on by, hit the head, and gone home alone to get a solid night’s rest. But something in the way Tressler’s younger blonde-haired prey had looked—an interesting mixture of boredom and concern—had stopped him in his tracks. And though she probably hadn’t meant it, the gratitude and relief when he’d taken Tressler in hand had shone in her eyes, making him feel eight feet tall.
“You’re not my commanding officer here.”
“Nope,” he agreed easily. And thank God for that. He stared at the exposed beams that criss-crossed over the high ceiling of the arena. Dropping the leg, he let it fall a bit more, allowing the pull to stretch his muscles.
“I don’t have to do what you say.”
“Okay then.” Switch sides, stretch away, ignore moron.
“I could have had her,” Tressler continued, almost to himself.
Brad snorted. And he wasn’t the only one.
“Knock it off, you two.” Higgs, who looked a little rough himself, slapped a palm on the mat. The smack of flesh echoed off the high rafters of the gym. “I’m not listening to a bunch of whiny pussies for months.”
Brad took the insult the way it was intended, with equal parts camaraderie and respect, and a little warning tossed in for good measure.
Sadly, Tressler didn’t seem to have the maturity to do the same. “Who are you calling a pussy, pussy?”
“Jesus,” Brad muttered, closing his eyes again when Higgs stood. “Knock it off, both of you.”
The low growl took them all by surprise. Every Marine was on his feet, at attention where he stood, as the coach approached. He was a mountain of a man, solidly built but still huge. His dark skin only made the contrast of his white teeth, bared in a grimace, and his shocking white hair stand out that much more.
“Bunch of ladies, bickering and moaning. ‘She stole my boyfriend. She wore my favorite shirt. I saw her texting Tommy and I like Tommy so she can’t do that,’” he mocked in a high-pitched faux teen girl voice.
A few chuckled before coughing.
“Yeah, it’s humorous.” He let his clipboard fall to the mat with a rattle. “Funny, when men can’t be five seconds in each others’ presence without acting like a bunch of middle school girls who got snubbed for the big dance.”
Brad bit the side of his cheek to keep from smiling.
The man walked between the Marines, through them, weaving in and out on silent feet. Brad kept his eyes forward, the only warning of the coach’s presence the change in atmosphere when he passed by. For a man who must have weighed two-fifty, he moved like a ghost. “I’m sent the few, the proud, the—what? What was that delicate term you used?” He paused by Tressler and Higgs, who both stared straight ahead. “‘Pussies,’ was it?”
Tressler said nothing. Kid had caught on, finally.
“Well, if that’s true, then we’ve got our work ahead of us, don’t we?” He made his way back to the front of the mat, where they could all see him. “At ease, boys. This isn’t formation; this is practice. I don’t expect you to salute and stand at attention around me. I’m your coach, not your commanding officer. And I’ll tell you what—I want you to all check your rank at the door. I make the leaders in this gym, not some brass on your collar when you’re back with your units.”
He rubbed his hands together. They were the size of dinner plates. “I’m Coach Ace, and these are my assistants.” He pointed a thumb over his left shoulder, toward a tall, lanky man with almost no hair and glasses. “Coach Cartwright.” Thumb jerked to the right, to the short man with a shocking orange-red moustache that would make the Lorax proud. “Coach Willis.”
He spread his arms out wide. “Coaches, this is what we have to work with. Let’s see what we’ve been given. Men? Are you pussies, or are you Marines?”
As one, for the first time, the entire squad gave a loud “Oo-rah!”
The smell of a fresh roll of athletic tape. The feel of sanitized plastic seats squeaking beneath her hands. The echo of ice poured by the pound into ten-gallon water coolers to be taken out for the athletes to rehydrate.
Marianne closed her eyes, breathed in deep and sighed with pure joy. This was her world. This was where she reigned with pleasure. Some athletic training rooms resembled nothing more than a dungeon, and even then, she was in her element.
But this one, she had to admit, was pretty decent. Probably because she was comparing it to her last job, where she had worked in a small high school that could barely field enough boys for a football team. But she’d loved it.
And she would love this, too. She just needed to get into the swing of things.
Levi, one of her college interns—she had interns!—walked in bear-hugging a big five-gallon cooler. His steps were more like a waddle thanks to the girth of the round plastic. “God, these guys killed this one fast. They’re camels, I swear.”
“As long as they’re hydrated camels, I don’t mind.” Marianne helped him maneuver the cooler over to the massive industrial sink that stood in the corner of her training room. Before, at the high school, she’d have had to wash the cooler herself. But thanks to having not one, but two, interns earning credit for the semester shadowing her, the grunt work was out of her hands for the low, low price of writing weekly updates and a more lengthy end-of-semester evaluation.
It was a beautiful thing to move up in the world.
Levi popped the top of the cooler and dumped out the last dribbles of ice before running the hot water. He shook his head a little to get his shaggy brown hair out of his eyes, then rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. “I’ll wash this one up and get the second cooler out there in a few minutes. Honestly, I don’t know how . . .” His voice trailed off, and Marianne glanced over to see what had happened.
Nikki had happened. Otherwise known as assistant number two. It had taken Marianne about point-five seconds to realize Levi was in some serious puppy love with the cute golden-haired coed. His voice rose an octave every time she was in the room, and his eyes tracked hers like the family pet hoping for a stray word of praise.
Nikki set a towel in the laundry hamper—which the janitors would handle later, another perk of the new job—and grinned. “One of them already threw up. Less than three hours. That’s gotta be a record somewhere.”
Marianne started for the door. “Is he okay?”
“Oh, yeah, sure. He just puked in a trash can while running laps. Barely slowed down at all to do it. He’s already back in formation and running with the rest of the crew.”
“Probably just drank too much water too fast before running.” She debated a moment, then decided to hold off on going out. No guy wanted the trainer running out there to baby him for something as simple as throwing up water. She wasn’t their mommy and they weren’t toddlers with scraped knees. Finding the balance of knowing when to step in and when to let them push on was part of her job. Baby the athletes and they didn’t want to come to her at all. Ignore the potential problems and they could injure themselves permanently.
Nikki walked around to the sink where Levi was washing out the jug and reached around him for a sleeve of plastic cups. “I’m going to run these upstairs. Looks like they’ll be using both the catwalk for cardio and the downstairs area for training, so I think we should have a second water station up there.”
Marianne bit back a smile as Levi’s eyes nearly rolled back in pleasure from Nikki’s nearness. “Good idea.”
Levi propped the clean jug on the drying rack and grabbed the cups before she could. Given Nikki’s short stature, she would have had to ask for help anyway. “I’ll go take them out. You can get the next water cooler ready.” He darted out of the room before she could protest.
Watching these two dance around each other could be amusing for the next few weeks. As long as it didn’t interfere with their work, she could appreciate others finding a little fun where they could get it.
Nikki fisted her hands at her hips. “I wanted to take it out.” Her pout turned to a Cheshire cat–like smile. “Any excuse to check out the hot Marines, right?” She moved to the clean cooler and started scooping ice, raising her voice above the crashing sound of the metal breaking through the chunks. “How can you be stuck in here all morning and not have any urge to peek? Half of them aren’t even wearing shirts anymore!”
“Old news.” Marianne shrugged, but grinned back. “I was raised here, remember? I think I got that out of my system in my teens.”
“There is no way you can get ‘hot guys’ out of your system. I’d have to be half-dead before I couldn’t recognize quality beef like that.”
Marianne’s mother would have agreed readily. Marianne just chuckled and went back to inventorying the bandages.
She turned to look at Levi, whose head was poking through the door. “Yeah?”
“The coach wants you to come out and meet the team. They’re about to break for lunch, so he says now’s a good chance to introduce you.”
“Sure thing. Just a second.” She finished up counting rolls so she didn’t lose place, documented the number and set the clipboard aside and headed out of the room.
The air was the first thing to change. Moving from the cool, AC-infused air of her training room into the muggy, heavy, humid air of the gymnasium, she almost struggled to breathe for a moment. The lights were dim, coming from far overhead, and her eyes adjusted before she walked toward the group of Marines and the three coaches. The men were in formation, feet shoulder-width apart and hands at the smalls of their backs, eyes straight forward. Though she knew they could hear her tennis shoes squeaking across the floor, not one of them moved a muscle to see who was coming.
Putting on her professional, distant smile, she shook hands with the head coach, whom she’d met the day before. “Hey, Coach Ace. How’s the first practice going?”
He smiled and shook. “Not too bad, Ms. Cook.”
He nodded in acknowledgement, then turned to the group assembled in front of him. She knew the drill, and faced the Marines. They’d all donned their shirts now—poor Nikki—but most were plastered to their fronts, leaving no imagination where their body shapes were concerned. These were fighting machines, well-honed. Body fat begone.
“Men, this is Marianne Cook, the athletic trainer assigned to our team. Her training room is behind you, to the left there through the double doors. I’ll let her say a few words, then we’ll break for a few hours to fuel up.”
“Thanks, Coach.” She waited a beat, then asked, “Can they relax?”
“Sure thing. Ease down, boys.”
She watched their muscles relax, their bodies loosen up, their gazes swing around the gym and their shoulders roll to ease the aches. And as she took inventory of the Marines, she spotted the idiot from the night before. The one who had done a pathetic job hitting on her and her mother. The infant. What had his friend called him? Tress . . . something? His eyes caught hers, and he flushed and his mouth gaped a little.
Oh, yeah. She bit back a grin, doing her best to keep the professional mask on. Sometimes, pretending to be a ladies’ man bit ya big time. Nice lesson, huh, kid?
“Hi guys. I’m Marianne; or you can just call me Cook. Either one. I respond to both.” It’d be easier on everyone if they called her Cook. Seeing her as one of the guys would make the entire thing smoother. “I’m either going to be around here, observing and keeping an eye on you while you work, or in the training room. I’ve got two assistants as well, Levi and Nikki.” She pointed toward the door, where her interns waved. Nikki’s wave might have been a tad more enthusiastic than Levi’s, but at least she wasn’t drooling.
“I’ve also got some pamphlets here.” She fanned the stack she’d brought out with her. She’d made them herself, and was pretty darn proud of them. “They talk about proper nutrition both before and after a training session to give your body proper fuel. I’ll leave them outside my door so you can grab one on the way out.”
She took a deep breath, about to give a quick, well-practiced speech on the importance of stretching and hydration—both of which could prevent a multitude of injuries themselves—when she saw another surprising face in the crowd.
The second man from last evening. The one who had stepped in when the infant had started bothering her and her mother. The reluctant savior. She knew he saw her; she was impossible to miss. His face was an impassive mask, eyes staring straight ahead, just a little to the left of her, like something on the blank wall behind her shoulder was more interesting. But his jaw clenched in a way that said he wasn’t entirely unaware of her presence.
* * *
Brad focused on the speed bag in front of him . . . mostly focused. The work was repetitive; he could work the bag by rote. But cruising on autopilot wouldn’t get him his spot on the team. Already, he knew his skills weren’t to the same par as others’. He wasn’t as fast as Higgs, and—it galled him to admit—he wasn’t as powerful as Tressler and his big mouth. A man named Sweeney took the prize for the most creative moves, with the sort of skill to see three moves ahead of his opponent and make the right choice. The man was like Bobby Fisher on a chess board, always calculating and ready.
But he had determination, guts and sheer refusal to quit. And his conditioning was above the curve. While some dropped like flies in the heat, he’d stand out as going the distance. He couldn’t beat them, but he could outlast them.
Please, God, let that count for something.
But right now he couldn’t think about outdistancing his fellow teammates. No, of course not. His mind kept drifting back to the icy blonde with hot legs and a banging body. Oh, sure, she hid it under the obligatory baggy staff polo that might as well have been a potato sack and a pair of loose khaki shorts. But he’d seen her the night before in a formfitting tank top and hip-skimming jeans. The woman was stacked.
And all but walked around with a sandwich board proclaiming, “Hands Off, Marines.” Shame, really.
He missed another combo, and Coach Willis’ barking, rasping shout had him blinking and dodging the bag before it hit him square in the face.
“Costa! Christ on a cracker, what are you doing with that bag?”
Brad turned, then jolted back a step when he found the shorter man standing right behind him. He had to be barely over five feet tall. “Coach—”
“Swear to God, boys, swear to God.” Willis shook his head, upper lip twitching. The motion sent his moustache into an awkward dance. Brad bit back a laugh. “If you can’t keep your head in the game, maybe you shouldn’t be playing it.”
Shit, shit, shit. Daydreaming about the Nordic princess had scraped his concentration raw. “Sorry, Coach. Just lost it for a second. I’m good.”
“You can go be ‘good,’” he said with a sneer and some air quotes for extra insult, “by running a few stairs and laps. Up, across, down, across. Ten rounds.” When he waited, Willis rubbed a finger across his moustache. “Go. Now.”
“Yes, Coach.” He took off immediately, sprinting to the first set of stairs. The gymnasium was set up with a set of stairs in each of the four corners, leading up to a catwalk above where spectators could watch games or events. The drill was simple enough. Run up a set of stairs, sprint across the length of the catwalk to the next stairs, run down, sprint across the gymnasium floor by the wall, back up again. Around and around he would go.
And where his dumbass mind would stop, Brad didn’t know. Jesus. Daydreaming about a woman when he should have been giving every brain cell to the task at hand, no matter how mindless.
He blanked her out—blanked it all out—and put his energy into completing the sprint drill in the fastest time he could. His best hope now was to wow the coaches with his speed and commitment so they would forget about his momentary lapse.
He hit the ninth lap strong, pleased with his time, barely winded, when, on the seventh stair up, it happened in slow motion. His brain registered the sickening sound of pops from his right knee, followed by a grinding sensation from under the kneecap that instantly made him nauseous. Brad grabbed for the railing before he pitched face-first into the concrete step and busted something.
Easing his butt to the step below, he stretched his right leg out fully. It clicked. Fucking clicked. He bent it to ninety degrees. A dull sort of pain radiated out from his knee, sharpening like ripping teeth when he straightened it again.
The hiss of breath he sucked in echoed in the steel-and-concrete staircase. He was alone, so at least that cut out the embarrassment of looking like a weakling.
Come on, work, dammit.
He bent the knee, straightened it out, bent it again. Then he slowly stood and tested the supporting weight.
No collapsing, no absolute brain-numbing pain. Just a dull ache. So, maybe he twisted it. Easy enough to push through. He walked up two steps and sucked in a breath again as the sharp pain hit. Okay. That wasn’t going to cut it.
But what the hell else was he going to do? Move into the stairwell like a hobo? Screwing his eyes closed, he evaluated the two possibilities. Quit, or push on.
He swallowed the nausea as he half walked, half jogged up the stairs to finish out the ninth lap. He’d lost almost all his edge in time, but as he jogged across the top of the catwalk, nobody seemed to notice he’d been missing from sight longer than normal. He kicked up the speed a little when he caught Higgs glancing upward, and gritted his teeth against the grinding feeling.
That couldn’t be good. But damn if he’d let any of his teammates see his weakness. Not yet. They weren’t a fully formed team, which made them opponents as much as a team. Boxing was tricky that way.
Sweat dripped from the back of his neck as he finished out his final lap, the pain causing every step to feel like twenty. So great, now he looked like an out-of-shape asshole. But probably better that than to get cut immediately with an injury.
Not that it was that bad. As he walked across the hardwood floor toward the large orange jug, he shook out the leg a little, making it seem like a normal stretch in case anyone walked back into the gym. There was no grinding pain now. Just a dull throb, like a toothache, and completely manageable. If this was how it would feel most of the time, it would be no issue.
Still, he’d use ice and heat after practice to be safe. He wasn’t a complete moron.
His hand crunched around the paper cup he’d glugged water from. “Coach Cartwright.”
The wiry man who looked like a stiff breeze would send him out to sea paced up. He had a wispy-thin voice to match. “Finished with your punishment?”
“Good. Go hit the weight room. Coach Ace is in there getting measurements and sizing up weight classes.”
“Yes, Coach,” he repeated, tossing the cup into the trash before jogging lightly across the gym toward the interior weight room.
As he pushed open the door, he found a long line of Marines ahead of him, with Coach Ace standing in the corner by a scale. He stepped up behind his roommate and another Marine, who were chatting.
Higgs turned and gave him a funny look. “Where’ve you been?”
“Conditioning,” he said easily. No need to mention it was a punishment.
Higgs just shrugged, then tilted his head to the left. His blond hair was soaking with sweat, darkening it to a golden brown. “Have you met Graham Sweeney?”
Of course he hadn’t. It wasn’t social hour at the O Club, for criss sake. But he held out a hand to the man standing beside Higgs. “Hey, man.”
Sweeney smiled easily. His darker, olive complexion and thick black hair made Brad think of Tuscan landscapes rather than a smelly, sweat-soaked gym room. “Hey. I was just telling Higgs here, I’m at my home base, so I’ve got a house out the back gate in Hubert. If you guys ever get sick of the BOQ or base food, come on by. We’ll toss a few steaks on the grill and relax a little.”
“Yeah, thanks, man. Sounds good.” The offer was decent, but he wouldn’t be taking him up on it anytime soon. He had enough to think about without adding budding bro-ships to it.
“We were just saying, too bad about Ramsey,” Higgs said with a shake of his head. “Disgusting luck. I thought he looked good in warm-ups.”
Brad thought hard and came up with a foggy impression of a built guy with gym-rat muscles and a semipermanent mean sneer. “What happened?” How much had he missed in ten dang minutes?
“Dislocated his shoulder using the bag.” Sweeney grimaced. “Showing off, looked like to me. He’s done. Went out fighting, though.”
“It wasn’t pretty,” Higgs agreed. “I could hear him in the training room, even through the door. He was screaming at the hot trainer like she was ruining his life. Though I think it was the coach’s final word, not hers, that put the fork in him.”
Brad’s skin prickled, and not just from the weak AC hitting his sweat-soaked body. Already, injuries were taking over. Part of him felt mental triumph at one less competitor on the field. But the other half of his brain reminded him he could easily be next.
The line shifted and he bounced on the balls of his feet as he stepped forward. Still fine. No sharp pain at all.
He’d play it by ear. Take it easy, stretch often and, if push came to shove, see a doctor out in town on his own dollar. One thing was for certain. There was no way in hell he was telling the sexy athletic trainer he was hurting. He’d rather take a bullet.
Marianne watched the poor, trodden masses stand at attention while Coach Ace read them the riot act. It was a speech she’d heard a dozen times, from a dozen different coaches in a dozen different ways. The gist was always the same, though.
Sloppy, out of shape, pathetic performance, how did I get saddled with such a sorry bunch of losers? I shoulda gone to culinary school like my mama begged me to. Blah blah blah.
Standard first-day fare.
Normally, though, it was geared toward high schoolers, and was delivered with less . . . colorful language. She smiled as the Marines stood at attention, being reamed out by Coach Ace, then Coach Willis—Cartwright seemed to pass on this round of ass-chewing. They were stoic and focused. Quite a change from the typical eye-rolling, sarcasm-producing teens.
After a few minutes of the interesting pep talk, the Marines broke for dinner. According to her schedule, they had about ninety minutes to decompress, grab food, shower, run errands or do whatever else it was they needed to handle around base. There wasn’t a ton to do on base, and they didn’t have enough time to make it out to Jacksonville, sit through a restaurant meal and come back, though some of them might be stationed on Lejeune, and so could pop back home to see families or roommates. The rest were housed in the BOQ or barracks, having been shuttled in from whatever base they were stationed at.
She watched with an amused smile as most of the men walked straight past her. A few nodded politely or smiled, but most simply breezed by. None, she noted, stopped to take one of the nutrition pamphlets she’d put on a stool outside her door. She propped a shoulder on the wall by the door and bit back a grin.
Day one, everybody was a tough guy. No showing weakness. No whining to mama. Give them another week, and she would have a full house of Marines wanting ice packs, heat packs, cramps massaged out, lacerations taped up, ankles wrapped and who knew what else.
One Marine walked up to stand in front of her. “Ma’am—”
“Marianne. Or Cook, either one.”
“Cook,” he said, as she had suspected he would. He was likely in his early twenties, which made her several years older than him, and he had a cute spray of freckles across his nose that complimented the russet-gold hair. But oh, God, coming on base could really be a dual hit and stroke to the ego. Hot Marines watching her walk around like she was the sexiest thing they’d seen all day, and then calling her ma’am like she was their old-fart aunt.
“Could I get an ice pack for the road?”
“Sure thing, come on in.” She walked back to the icing station and grabbed a plastic bag, blowing in it to fill it with air and wrapping the edges around a bucket. Made for easier filling. “What’s the ailment, Marine?”
That was the beauty of this job. She didn’t have to memorize names or ranks. Shout, “Hey, Marine!” in a full room, and you’ll get a full room answering you back.
He glanced around the room, as if he were waiting for someone to pop out and scream, “Surprise!” at him.
“We’re alone,” she assured him, biting on her lip to contain the smile.
He blew out a breath, then held up his left hand. Even from several feet away, she could see the last two knuckles were swollen. Likely dislocated.
“Doesn’t hurt,” he insisted, a little too quickly in her opinion. “I just don’t want it to swell more and cause problems later.”
“Well, you’re right on that part at least. What’s your name?”
“Well, Chalfant, you came to the right place.” She tied the ends of the plastic baggie and brought it over to sit on the bench next to him. When she held out her hand, he hesitated. “I’ll be gentle, I promise.”
His lips twitched and he gingerly stretched his arm out to place his wrist in her grip. It hurt more than he wanted to admit—that much was obvious. When she wiggled his pinky and ring finger, his eyes squinted and his jaw clenched, though he didn’t flinch or pull away.
“Ice, ice baby,” she said and handed him the bag. “Would it do me any good to ask you to take the rest of the day off? Or to just use your other hand?”
He gave her a look that clearly asked, Are you insane? He was too well-trained—either by his mama or by a very proud gunny somewhere—to say it out loud.
“Thought so. Take it easy with that hand, try using the right more than the left. If you want to wrap it, just for the illusion of support and to keep the swelling down, come back ten minutes before the evening session and we’ll do that. I can wrap both hands up to the wrists, if that would make you feel better about it. A lot of guys are wrapping just to protect against scrapes and mat burns. Nobody would think twice.”
He gave her a grateful smile and stood, bag of already melting ice in his right hand. He headed out the door, nodding respectfully to the man who passed him in the doorway.
Another customer. She tossed the bucket she’d used into the wash bin and was ready to grab another when she noticed it was her handsome stranger from the night before. His shirt, a light gray, had a shadowy line running down the front from the neck to his waistband. His brown hair had deepened to nearly black with sweat. And his dark eyes were scanning the room in a slow, methodical way that made her think he was waiting to be ambushed.
And unlike sweet Toby Chalfant, the sexy stranger sent her heart into a different gear entirely.
Marianne, if you let your heart race like that, he’s going to pick up on it.
And why the hell are you even letting this one man affect you like that? Pull it together! You are a professional—act like it.
She took a deep breath, then gave him her most professional, polite smile. “What can I do for you?”
He said nothing for a moment, just surveyed the room.
Okay then. Two could play that game. She crossed her arms and waited.
After a few moments, he hopped up onto one of her tables and swung his legs up, bending over as if stretching out his hamstrings. “Where are the assistants?”
“Sent them out for an early dinner. Figured it’d be a slow first day.”
He glanced once more at the empty room. “Figured right.”
“So.” She slapped a hand down on the table next to him, her palm stinging and echoing against the thick plastic like a smack on flesh. “Are you in here for business or pleasure?”
He scowled. “Out of those two options, business, I guess.”
“No time for pleasure?” Crap. Why had she asked that? He might take that for flirting. She wasn’t flirting. Of course she wasn’t flirting.
If he thought it was a flirtatious remark, he didn’t seem inclined to reply in the same vein. “I’m here for the job. Which, right now, is boxing and training.”
“Of course. Name?”
“Does it matter?”
You know, he was a lot more personable the night before in the bar. “I’m working with the lot of you for the next several weeks. Yes, it matters. At least until you get cut.”
She’d meant it in jest, more as a general you, not so much him in particular. But he scowled at her like he wanted to bite her head off, as if she’d meant it personally.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Jeanette Murray:
“Fun to read…Entertaining, thanks to Murray’s insights into the attraction of opposites.”—Booklist
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Below the Belt by Jeanette Murray is the first book in her First To Fight series. It is based on a marine boxing team and their coaches and athletic trainers that are part of that team. Being on the Marine Corps boxing team is all Brad Costa can ever remember wanting. He wants to honor his fathers memory and this is how he plans to do it. When an injury happens on the second day of tryouts/training he decides to keep it to himself and struggle through rather than show weakness and get booted off the team. This means keeping it hidden from not only his potential teammates and fellow trainees and the coaches, but also from the gorgeous athletic trainer with eagle eyes. Marianne Cook wants a healthy team - the macho factor of the Marine Corps boxing team makes this nearly impossible to get them to open up about injuries and pain. She detects something going on with Brad's knee but he keeps deflecting. In fact, he deflects so much they end up having dinner together. What he didn't expect was to fall for her and what she didn't expect was to put her career at risk because feelings got in the way. Loved this story - it was well-paced, steamy, and painted a great picture of the boxing world on base and all that goes into it before any matches even begin.
A squad of Marines trying out for a boxing team? Who cares about a story! Haha! Just teasing! I do have a review here for real. I enjoyed the author's previous trio of romances set on a Marine base and was tickled to death that she tackled the double punch of a sports and military romance. The tone is sassy and light, but has sustenance and a strong romance. I loved to see a determined Marine who has a compelling reason why he needs to make the boxing team, get sidetracked by a feisty athletic trainer and the athletic trainer who has big ambitions and doesn't want anything to block her chance including a headstrong male hiding an injury. A boxing gym as love's battlefield? Why not! The story opens with Lt. Brad Costa arriving on base to join the tryouts for the Marine boxing team. He's older than his counterparts and this is probably his last chance. His dad died before achieving his dream so Brad wants to do it for him. He focuses on the goal not letting a wise-cracking teammate or the antics of the younger guys draw him in. Not even an injury must get in his way. The hot, sassy trainer mustn't know or there's a chance she'll sideline him before he can make the team. At first, his motives are merely to distract her from his injury, but then time with Marianne becomes so much more. His secret is looming over any chance of a relationship, but his need to make the team makes coming clean with the truth a problem. Marianne Cook, athletic trainer, is back home with two things on her mind. She will make a success of getting the Marine team through their camp and tryouts as injury free and fit as possible and she will avoid any entanglements with Marines knowing the disaster that can bring after growing up in the shadow of the base. Unfortunately her hormones have other ideas. She can 'Bad Marianne!' herself all she wants, but when Brad Costa is in sight she finds him irresistible. As a result of her scrutiny, she notices him favoring his knee. Not wanting to jump the gun, she takes a wait and see. He won't talk to her about it and even when she agrees to try out dating, he stays closed mouth about his injury. Against her better judgment, she holds back, but in the end- dating or not- if he is injured, she will make that call. It was an interesting backdrop for a story and I loved it. Sports medicine and training for a sport provide a good base, but add in a romance along with a bit of suspense from the mysterious sabotage going on, and I was hooked. The well-developed characters are flirty and playful. Brad tries to be the loner, curmudgeonly type, but Marianne and the other Marines won't let him. "Where are you from?" Her heels thudded gently against the wooden leg of the table. "Illinois." She waited a moment. "Me? I grew up in Jacksonville. Moved away for college and my first training gig, then came back for this job specifically. Thanks for asking, chatterbox." His lips twitched before he could catch them. "Jeez, you really ask a lot of questions. I'm an only child and that was my mom sitting with me the other night at the bar, though you likely already figured that out. Got any siblings over there in Illinois?" He raised a brow. "If you don't shut up, I'll never get a word in edgewise," she said with mock seriousness. He turned to look at the wall for a while before she caught the smile. She grinned, totally onto him. "You can't resist forever. Eventually you'll crack under the pressure..." p. 44 Marianne from Below the Belt I loved the story that was much more than an isolated romance. Brad learns to be a part of a team and the interaction within the group of guys was great. "And the group didn't go out tonight anywhere. I know, since I would have been invited before you," Higgs continued..."So I'm left to conclude that you had a date." That one word had all his hackles rising. No, not a date. Not dating the trainer. "Wasn't a date." "Ah, he speaks." As if that were an invitation, Higgs sat at the edge of his bed, within kicking distance. Brave SOB. "And as you didn't feel the need to denounce the other options"- "You did for me," he pointed out. "-I am left to conclude"- "Again" "That it was a date, and that you are embarrassed by her. Which makes this all the more interesting." Flopping back, he laced his hands behind his head. His elbow bumped Brad's. "So tell me more." "Hold on, I forgot to put on my nightgown and grab my curlers. Do you want to do my hair or should I do yours first?" Brad asked with as much of a sneer as he could work up. "You got curlers? Go for it. No judgment." Higgs shrugged. "She a stripper? Married? Ugly as sin?" "What? No!" Brad sat up and shoved his roommate. The man didn't budge. "So there is a woman. Damn! You're bad at this." Rolling to his feet, Higgs chuckled as Brad threw his second pillow- this time with perfect aim- at his back. p. 67 Brad and Higgs from Below the Belt Marianne's time with her friend and her mom were a blast too. But that romance was an incredibly fun time. Marianne is such a sass and she loves to have fun when its sexy times. And these two were sexy together. Even as I waited for the other shoe to fall with Brad's lying about his injury to Marianne, I had a really good time reading along. There is the feel that this book is setting up the series, but that was just a very small part which left me eager for more. Wrapping it up, this one was engaging and fun, asking the reader to laugh along and wink with it. There was an exciting, sexy couple and a good plot to draw one in and keep them reading. The story involves Marines, but I would rate it more as a sports romance because of the focus. Contemporary lovers who like hot and spicy fun romances should give this one a try. My thanks to Penguin Group and Net Galley for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
: 3.75 stars--BELOW THE BELT is the first installment in Jeanette Murray’s new contemporary, adult First to Fight military, romance series focusing on a group of Marine Corps boxers and the women they love. This is First Lieutenant Brad Costa and athletic trainer Marianne Cook’s storyline. Marianne Cook has been hired as the physical therapist and trainer for the Marine’s new boxing team, and there is an instant chemistry between herself and First Lieutenant Brad Costa. At twenty nine years old Brad is the ‘elder statesman’ amongst the current team of Marines and with it comes some existing injuries that he is a little reluctant to share. As Brad continues to hide the extent of his pain and suffering, Marianne is all too aware that Brad hasn’t been truthful with his coach or his trainer. The storyline follows two paths: the training, the comaraderie, and building friendships between a group of men thrown together with a common goal-to make the Marine Corps boxing team. Brad has been selected as one of three team leaders, and in this his skills and previous experience bring together the motley crew under his care. Brad and Marianne’s attraction to one another is immediate; Marianne has never before been involved with one of the men; Brad is a dedicated Marine who doesn’t do long term relationships. When our couple hit a rough patch, the Marines get together to push their friends in the right direction. The $ex scenes are intimate, provocative and romantic. There is a secondary storyline building throughout the novel, one that focuses on a series of harassing threats and destruction of property aimed at the Marine Corps boxers. Reagan Robilard is brought in as the athletic liaison and PR consultant, and it is her job to help with the investigation into the threats and damage. Reagan’s story is next –AGAINST THE ROPES- where the search for the culprit(s) continues. The colorful and charismatic supporting characters include the coaches, the boxers, family, friends and potential lovers. We are introduced to several Marines whose aim it is to qualify for the team. The developing friendships are amusing, refreshing and supportive. Some will not make the team, while others struggle on a daily basis. Marianne and Brad’s families play a supporting and sometimes humorous role throughout the story-Marianne’s mother is a Marine groupie who loves the attention and flirting with the men. The world building follows the Marine Corps boxing team through their training, determination and after hours play. BELOW THE BELT is a delightful read with a fascinating and engaging cast of characters. Although BELOW THE BELT focuses on the Marine Corp boxing team we do not see any military action-it is all about the athletes and the competition. Jeanette Murray’s BELOW THE BELT was a delight to read.