Former Navy SEAL Josh Steele gets tasked with a babysitting mission
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Kill. Me. Now.
Holly Fairfax — or rather Holly Sinclair, since she changed her last name and moved to the other side of the country to get out from underneath her father's thumb — expelled an exaggerated breath and glanced at the gorgeous island resort sprawled out in front of her. The Playground of Paradise Bay.
Beautiful. Just freaking beautiful.
Yeah, okay, so the rest of the staff from Encore Software Solutions might all be grinning like village idiots, happy to be on this tropical Caribbean island to partake in team bonding activities, but Holly would rather be back in California in front of her beloved computer. She was elbow-deep into her latest web analysis data, and wanted to get the information to her clients in a timely manner. Bonding with her coworkers, or anyone really, ranked right up there with a novocain-free root canal when other, more pressing matters were at hand. And even when they weren't.
As a river raged at the far end of the resort, and a flock of colorful birds took flight, she blocked the sun from her eyes and stole a glance around the massive property. Her gaze landed on her boss, Jeff Flaherty — his newly pierced left ear to be precise. The midday rays glistened off the huge diamond that had to cost more than the small condo she'd recently purchased. She winced at the ridiculousness of it all. Just because he was having a midlife crisis, and likely set this whole adventure up so he could "bond" with his new, nineteen-year-old secretary — okay, she wasn't nineteen she just looked and acted it — didn't mean he had to drag the entire organization along. Couldn't they connect on their own time? Engage in playtime back home?
And when it comes right down to it, why does the "no fraternizing in the office" rule not apply to him?
Not that it personally affected her. It didn't. She had no desire to cozy up to anyone in the office.
Her cell phone chirped, the personal tone she'd given Samantha, her best friend back in New York. She smiled, happy to hear from her bestie, who always saw the bright side of things — probably because she was one of New York's top interior designers. They didn't see a lot of each other since Holly had moved to California, but they still talked every day about everything and nothing. She read the text.
How is it?
Holly's smile fell as she stole another glance around the lush grounds. Awful, I don't want to be here.
Oh, stop. Take a picture and show me the place.
Holly lifted her phone and snapped a picture of the resort's grand lounge. She fired it off to Sam.
Mm, nice. I'm jealous.
Holly shrugged, even though her friend couldn't see her. I guess it's okay.
I'd say it's better than okay.
It's definitely big.
That's what she said.
What the —?
Holly took another look at the picture she'd sent and groaned when she noticed Josh Steele, brilliant coder extraordinaire, off in the distance, leaning against one of the large pillars. Her fingers flew over her phone. You are so bad.
Yeah, and I bet he's SO good. While you're there, why don't you have some fun with him?
Seriously? Sam thought she should have a little fun with the guy who'd come on board a few weeks ago and worked in the office next to hers? He was proficient, organized, and nice enough — although they'd barely exchanged two words — but good God, he needed to get out of those ripped board shorts and ridiculous T-shirts with the bad sayings. And what was going on with that mess of hair that fell past his broad shoulders. She didn't mind longish hair on guys, but his covered his face, shadowing a chiseled jaw that was always dusted with a day's worth of growth.
Her phone chirped, pulling her thoughts back to Sam. I ran into your dad the other day.
How did that go?
He asked about you.
You didn't tell him I was away with work, did you? If her father knew she was on a tropical island in the middle of nowhere, he'd have sent a rescue party — but the only rescuing she needed was from his overbearing ways.
Of course not. So, who's the guy? Sam texted, bringing the topic of conversation back to Holly's coworker.
Sure, all he needs is a makeover.
Says the interior designer.
You just have to look beneath the surface. I bet you'd find a treasure. Many old homes I redesign have good bones, I just have to clear out the clutter to get to them.
He's not an old home, he's a guy.
Holly glanced at the picture again. Yeah, under that mess of hair he was definitely sexy. Not that she cared. A relationship of any sort was not on her agenda. Nope. Her entire focus was on securing the newly vacant senior analyst position and proving to her father that she could stand on her own two feet. Maybe then he'd back off. No matter what he thought, she did not need his money, or the protection from one of his bossy security specialists who tried to rule her every move and thought they knew what was best for her. She was a twenty-six-year-old computer software engineer, for heaven's sake — not a damn toddler in need of a bodyguard — and wanted to live her own life, get by on her own merits. Which meant that after gaining senior analyst experience at Encore, the next rung to climb would be opening her very own software firm. She couldn't wait.
I think you should do him.
I am not doing him.
Come on. I dare you.
What were they, twelve?
"Bad. Bad. Bad," she said out loud as she texted back.
"Might not be so bad," a male voice said from beside her.
She lifted her head and came face-to-face, or rather face to chest, with none other than Josh Steele.
"You're right. It might not be so bad," she said on a sigh, her gaze darting to the lush tropical forest surrounding the resort. "I could get lucky and stumble across a venomous snake during the adventure tour."
He arched a brow. "I take it you don't want to be here any more than I do."
"You got that right." A breeze blew Josh's hair from his face, and she caught the lopsided smile pulling at his mouth. Perfect white teeth flashed her way. Nice. Seriously, though, some orthodontist had to be driving around California in a top-end Porsche. A brilliant, Hollywood smile like that definitely came with a huge price tag. How he could afford that on their junior analysts' salary was beyond her.
She tucked her phone away as he leaned into her. "Word of advice. It's not the snakes you should be worried about," he said, his low voice pulsing through her. One big hand raked sun-damp hair off his forehead, and Holly felt something stir deep between her legs. What the hell? Sure, she had a thing for hands — especially big ones like his — but come on, this was Josh, a guy who wore T-shirts with sayings like I don't want to taco 'bout it, or Ho Lee Chit. Nevertheless, she looked at him closer, and caught the glint in his cerulean eyes. He had nice eyes — bedroom blue.
For a brief moment, her synapses stopped firing, and her pulse beat double time against her throat. Whoa. She shook her head to reboot her stalled brain. Okay, clearly the tropical sun was playing havoc with her libido if she was combining Josh and bedroom in the same sentence. Then again, she'd gone so long without the feel of a man's hands on her naked flesh that maybe this was her body's way of telling her it was tired of all the work and none of the play.
I think you should do him.
As her friend's last text chirped around inside her brain, Holly cleared her throat and glanced at Josh, who was waiting for a response. "No? Then what should I be worried about?" He gestured with a nod toward Todd Stanley, who was dressed in a plaid business suit and sweating like the little pig that built his house from straw. Except he looked more like the big bad wolf as he stared at her from across the gardens. Honest to God the guy was old enough to be her father. With the exception of Josh and a handful of other young techies in the organization, nearly every single guy in her office seemed to be going through some sort of midlife crisis. Had to be something in the watercooler.
Josh stepped closer, crowding her, and his warm breath caressed the shell of her ear as he leaned in and said, "I'd be more worried about getting paired with Stanley during team bonding exercises. The guy looks like he wants to eat you alive."
Damn Josh smelled good. Outdoorsy. Like sun and sand. Sex on the beach. A shiver raced through her body, stopping to play with every erogenous zone along the way.
What the hell is going on with me?
Sam. Had to be Sam planting ideas. Damn you.
A sound caught in her throat, and she shot a glance Stanley's way to play the moan off as disgust. Yeah, a snakebite would definitely be better than getting paired with him.
"Wouldn't happen to see a king cobra lying around, would you?"
Josh laughed, and she couldn't help but smile. He nudged her with his shoulder to set her into motion. "Come on. The team meeting is in ten minutes. You know how Jeff hates for anyone to be late." He winked, a teasing edge to his deep voice as he added, "If we hurry, we can get front-row seats."
Playing along, she reached into her purse, pulled out her sunglasses, and spun them around by the arm. "Sure, it's all fun and games until the glare from Jeff's new rock blinds one of us." She slid the glasses on. "We'd better prepare ourselves."
Josh laughed again, and she started walking, the hem of her dress catching in the breeze. She smoothed it down, and when she noticed he wasn't following, she glanced over her shoulder. Her knees wobbled when she found Josh standing as still as a stealth solider — staring at her ass. Dammit, had she just flashed him?
"Ah ... Josh?"
His eyes jerked upward. Wait, was that ... desire? Nah, couldn't be. He'd never paid her a lick of attention back at the office, and probably went for girls who dug his gamer vibe, not ones who kept their heads down and buried themselves in their work because they had something to prove.
"Right, front-row seat," he said quickly as he stepped up beside her. All right, if he was going to pretend she hadn't just given him a glimpse — a lovely front-row view, at that — of her comfy panties, then she would, too. Of all the days not to wear something sexy. Hold on! Why would she wear something sexy? She wasn't trying to get him into her bed or anything. She didn't think.
Get your head on straight. The only thing you're after is a promotion.
They made their way to the conference room, and once inside she excused herself from Josh and grabbed a cup of coffee. Her boss made his way to the front whiteboard as the rest of the staff filed in. In an attempt to go unnoticed, she eased into a chair in the back row, grabbing an aisle seat for a quick exit.
"This chair taken?"
Her gaze lifted to find Stanley hovering over her and rapidly rubbing the balding spot in the center of his head like it was a genie's bottle and he was making a wish.
She so did not want to know what he was wishing for. But since she was never one to be rude or purposely mean — heck, she knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of a bully — she waved her hand, and was about to offer up the seat next to her when Josh interrupted.
"Thanks for holding my seat," he said, and plunked down. He glanced at Stanley and tapped the chair on the other side of him. "Here you go, bud."
Stanley glared at Josh, then took a seat two rows up, next to Claire, a pretty woman Stanley's age. Holly stole a glance at Josh, but he was leaning forward, playing some game on his phone, his hair masking his features.
"Why did you do that?"
He lifted his head. "Do what?"
"Grab this seat."
He laughed. "No way was I going to let Stanley sit next to you."
She stiffened, immediately going on the defense. "I'm a big girl, Josh. I can take care of myself."
"I know, but I'm a guy, and I have a sister. If anyone looked at her the way Stanley was looking at you, I'd throat-punch him. Believe me, I know what he was thinking."
"Oh yeah? And what might that be?" she challenged.
He went quiet for a moment, his foot jiggling, a restless energy about him. Caged animal. He didn't like being in this room any more than she did. Then again, maybe his nervous energy stemmed from something else.
He angled his head slowly, and when intense blue eyes locked on hers it sucked the oxygen from her lungs. All righty, then.
"Do you really want to know, Holly?" he asked, his deep voice vibrating through her and sparking a need so fierce it was all she could do not to squirm.
"I do," she managed to say, slightly unnerved by the way her body was reacting.
"Since we've been talking about snakes, let me put it to you this way. He wants you to charm his."
"Josh!" She whacked him, not wanting to think about Stanley, or his snake, but when her hand hit a wall of muscle, she sank deeper into her chair and tried not to think too hard about that, either.
"Sorry," he said unapologetically. "Just telling it like it is."
She turned from him, her eyes on the front of the room but her mind on the man next to her. Who the heck was this Josh and why was he suddenly so protective of her? She wasn't sure, but one thing was for certain — he wasn't the same techy gamer geek who worked in the office next to hers and mostly kept to himself.
"Welcome, everyone," Jeff said, bringing all eyes to him. "I'm so happy we're all gathered here today ..." As he continued to talk about the point system for the upcoming bonding games and introduce staff members who ran the exercises, everyone from the guy who headed up the boot camps and wilderness excursions to the scavenger hunt coordinator, Holly grabbed her phone and checked her messages.
A half hour later, a middle-aged brunette in an apron with Power-of-Play emblazoned across the front took center stage. She introduced herself then continued with, "For tomorrow's exercise we will all be in the kitchen."
"Great," Holly said under her breath. How was any of this going to make her better at her job, or help her get her data out in a timely manner? Clients relied on her and she prided herself on getting information to them as quickly as possible.
"We'll be having a mixology contest," the woman explained. Laughter trickled through the room. "Sound easy?" She wagged her finger. "It's not. Especially when you can't use your hands for most things and will have to rely on your partner. You'll need to work in twos for this, so if you all want to pair up now, it will make things go smoother tomorrow."
Josh turned to her. "Partners?"
She wasn't interested in being paired with anyone. Hard lessons had taught her not to rely on others — don't let anyone in, don't get hurt — but she supposed if she had to join forces and prove to her boss she could band together when needed, Josh was a better choice than Stanley.
"Yeah, sure, but I don't know my way around a kitchen so we'll likely lose." Which really sucked because she needed to nail these exercises and make sure her boss didn't overlook her again because of her shortcomings.
Senior analysts must be team players, Holly.
He shrugged. "Don't count yourself out just yet."
She gave him a dubious look. "You're saying you know your way around a kitchen?"
He rolled one of those broad shoulders, which seemed out of place in a room full of software engineers. "I'm saying I know how to do a lot of things."
Her eyes went to his hands. Big. Strong. Capable. What kinds of things did he do with those?
Jeff stepped to the front again. "Okay, everyone get settled into your rooms, enjoy the property for the rest of the evening, and be sure to get something to eat. You'll need your energy for the upcoming week. We'll all meet back here nine a.m. sharp."
Holly made a quick escape while everyone talked about going for drinks, and hurried to her room. Even though orders were to leave laptops in California, and she was supposed to be bonding, she dug her computer out of her suitcase and booted it up.
Excerpted from "Bonding Games"
Copyright © 2017 Cathryn Fox.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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