The sight of the gorgeous, ripped military man across the street heats Mari McGuire from head to toeand a whole lot in between. Yes, sir, she definitely has a case of Hot Marine Syndrome. And when First Lieutenant Brody Williams rescues her from an awkward run-in with her ex by pretending to be her boyfriend, Mari can confirm she's got it bad
Of course, they're friends first, and friends help each other out. Mari needs a hand renovating the old Victorian house she just bought and Brody needs a girlfriend to secure his promotion. It's the perfect temporary arrangementand then there's the sizzling chemistry. It's wickedly racy. It's addictive. But neither of them expects Cupid's arrow to aim for their hearts!
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Lieutenant Brody Williams dumped a bag of tortilla chips in his grocery cart and tried not to wince when the wheels squeaked. The headaches were less intense since the crash, but he still had them daily. That level of pain, paired with the dreams that had him waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, had left him feeling rotten for months. If he took the drugs the doctors gave him, he couldn't fly, so he ran for miles every day and drank more coffee than any man should.
He added salsa to his cart. A hobby, that's what he needed, something that would keep him busy and the memories at bay. Fixing up his rented house was almost complete. New projectsthat would do it. He was about to turn the corner when he saw the familiar red head.
Shoot. His CO's daughter was walking down the frozen food section.
Why does she always seem to turn up wherever I am?
He'd met her at a reception his boss threw a few weeks ago. At first, he'd thought she was pretty, but then discovered she was the boss's daughter. Hands off that one. Unfortunately, she didn't seem to understand that dating her wasn't even a remote possibility for him. His boss was already an aggravation, he didn't need to be adding to it by taking out the man's daughter.
Turning his cart quickly, he headed the opposite way. A woman plus a couple were blocking his escape. He stood off to one side pretending to look at the different brands of coffee.
"Marigold, I'd like you to meet my beautiful fiancée, Annalise. She's a model," the man said. "She's been in a ton of magazines." His tone was snide and Brody felt sorry for Marigold.
"Fiancée? But we only broke up two months ago," she said. "I mean, congrats and all, but that's kind of fast." The voice was familiar to Brody, smooth and rich like honey.
The guy was showing off his new girl to his ex? From Marigold's reaction, she was barely holding on by a thread. Brody's guess was that this guy had done a real number on her. And she was right. A couple of months wasn't nearly long enough to get to know someone well enough to marry them. Heck, twenty years wasn't long enough in his book. Then again, he never planned on marrying.
He sucked at relationships. Mostly because he was seldom in one place for longer than six months. As a pilot, and a trainer, his situation could change any day.
"Oh, my little sweetie couldn't wait to put a ring on it," the woman named Annalise said, as she waved her hand back and forth. Brody realized he knew the poor woman who was caught in her ex's crosshairs. She was his neighbor, Mari, or rather Marigold. He'd once lugged some wood flooring she'd been struggling with. She said she was flipping the old Victorian across the street from his place. He'd wondered then why she didn't have someone to give her a hand with heavy loads like the flooring. Not that he minded helping. She'd been kind and even offered him lemonade.
That day she'd been wearing a ball cap pulled low, and baggy overalls and a fresh white tank, but those deep blue eyes had made him think about the sea off the coast of Greece. Today, her shiny blond hair was pulled up into a sleek ponytail and she wore denim shorts with a Dallas Cowboys jersey. He could forgive her choice of team, if only because of the startled look in her eyes.
He hadn't been able to help his men a year ago. He'd barely been able to help himself, but he could do something about this.
"Mari, there you are," he said before he even realized the words were coming out of his mouth. He pushed around her ex. "I've been looking all over for you, babe. I found the chips and salsa, but not the cheese stuff you wanted."
At first, she glanced up at him as if he was crazy, but then she smiled when she recognized him.
That smile stole his breath away. As in, he could not suck in air even if he tried. Damn. She was beautiful.
She cleared her throat. "That's okay, honey, I think I'll make the queso from scratch," she said without missing a beat. Then she stood on her toes and kissed his cheek. Her lips were soft. "I love that you are so helpful." And then in his ear she whispered, "Thank you."
"You know I'd do anything for you." He grabbed her and pulled her to him. Her vanilla scent made him forget where they were. "Who's this? Do I need to be jealous?" He nodded toward her ex.
"Oh, uh " She stumbled over the words. "My ex. He was introducing me to his fiancée."
The other man appeared as if he'd swallowed a toad. Clearly he hadn't been expecting Mari to find a man so quickly.
Brody chuckled. "Well, I should take you out to dinner, man. Because if you hadn't been an idiot and left my Mari, my life would be empty. She's the best thing that has ever happened to me. The day we met was the most special one in my life." Oh, now he was laying it on thick, but he couldn't stop. He had this need to protect her. To show this fool what he was missing. The brunette with the false eyelashes and even falser breasts couldn't compare to the natural beauty he held in his arms.
The ex's mouth opened and then closed, as if he couldn't decide what to say. His brows furrowed and he opened his mouth again, but
The brunette squealed. "I've had a marvelous idea. You guys have to come to our engagement party," she said. "It's so cool that everyone can kind of be bygones."
Wow. He had a feeling the supposed model had no idea what bygones meant.
"That's probably not a marvelous idea," the ex said. "I'm sure they're busy."
"We do stay pretty busy," Mari said.
"True," Brody agreed. "But send us an invite anyway. You never know. I love showing off my Mari."
The jerk's eyes flashed wide. Good. Even if she didn't go, he'd be worried she might show up.
"We should get going," Mari said. She put a hand on his arm and shot him a quick grin. "I hope you two will be very happy together. Come on, Brody."
He and Mari turned and made it several aisles over before stopping. "You didn't have to do that, but thank you," she said softly. She blew out a breath. "That wasn't how I imagined seeing him for the first time since we broke up. I was shocked. I mean, who gets engaged so fast? We dated for five years."
"You're better off without him," Brody said honestly. "And you're way too good for him."
She grinned. "You've known me five seconds, but thank you. It was really kind. The breakup was bad and I thought I was over it, but wow. Just wow. You're the best. I was sinking there and you threw me a life preserver."
He still wasn't sure why he'd done it. Wasn't like him to butt into a stranger's business. He preferred being alone. But there was something about her that made him want to get involved. "It's a Marine thing. We live by our code. You were a damsel in distress and I came to your aid."
"I'm not sure anyone, especially someone I didn't know well, has ever been so kind to me. I'd say your duty is done, Marine. That was just a whole lot of awesome. He looked like a marooned fish trying to figure out what to say." She laughed this time. It was a sweet sound. "You are the best boyfriend ever."
His shoulders tightened at the sound of his name. She'd finally found him. "Please help me," he whispered to Mari before turning around.
The CO's daughter had her eyebrow raised and seemed to be focused on something, or rather someone, just past his shoulder.
"Did I hear you say you're dating her?" She pointed a red fingernail toward Mari.
"Do you have a problem with that?" Mari said. Her acidic tone very nearly made him chuckle.
Knowing a cue when he heard one, he quickly stepped aside and grabbed her hand. It was so small in his, and her skin was silky smooth against his calloused mitts. He raised Mari's fingers to his lips and kissed them. "Calm down, babe. This is my CO's daughter, Carissa. The boss's daughter."
"Oh. Ohhhh." She smiled and then shook her head. "I'm so sorry. Hi, I'm Marigold McDaniels. You have to forgive me. My man is so handsome that I always have to be on alert to discourage women from throwing themselves at him. It gets annoying after a while. But he's a sweetheart, and I'm maybe just a little bit the jealous type. At least, when it comes to Brody."
Mari might win an award some day for this performance.
For once Carissa seemed speechless, but still, she recovered quickly. "Funny that he's never mentioned you."
"That's my fault," Mari said. "It's so new between us, and I got out of a really bad relationship not that long ago. Like horrifically bad. So we haven't been telling people, until, well, today. We just ran in to my ex."
"Awkward," Brody said in a singsong voice. That didn't sound like him at all; it caught him off guard. Maybe he'd be the one winning the award. And if this charade of theirs kept the CO's daughter from hitting on him in the future, he'd owe Mari for life. "I kind of wanted to punch his lights out for hurting my Mari." That part was true. He'd never wanted to smack a guy so bad. "But at the same time, if he hadn't been so dumb, Mari and I would never have met."
"Huh." Carissa gave them a weak smile. "Well, my dad will be glad to hear you're putting down some roots finally. In fact, you should bring her to the picnic on Saturday. It will be good for you to socialize, get to know more people. Dad's still trying to build camaraderie and teamwork hopefully by bringing folks together off base," Carissa said to Mari. "He's mentioned several times that Brody seems to be a bit of a loner."
Why would the boss be discussing him with Carissa? Brody wasn't happy to hear that.
He'd forgotten about the team-building events. He didn't understand why simply doing the job wasn't enough anymore. They were Marines. Being smart and self-reliant were the important qualities to have. Not worrying about connecting with others and all that stuff. You interacted with one another, sure, but everyone had to focus and do their own job.
He glanced down at pretty Mari. Shoot. The last thing Brody needed in his life was a woman. A relationship only meant complications. Once you cared about someone
"Babe, you promised we could lay wood," Mari said, with a giggle and a sexy smile on her lips. Parts of his body reacted. This woman was definitely dangerous if merely her laugh could make him hard. "Sorry. What I mean is we're supposed to put the wood floors down on Saturday."
He gently tugged her ponytail. "You're a bad, bad girl." She was funny and quick, as well as beautiful. Yep, a wicked combination. "I always keep my promises, but maybe we can figure out how to do both." He leaned down and kissed her cheek. He had to, she smelled so good, looked so good and right, Carissa was watching. He knew there was another reason. He admitted it was hard to think when Mari was smiling up at him like that.
"You've got that look again." She rolled her eyes. "But I can never tell if you want food or"
Her. Naked. In his bed.
What was that? His imagination was in overdrive.
Food. He needed to eat, or maybe it was the headache. It was causing him to hallucinate.
"You. Babe, when it comes to a choice between food or you, it's always going to be you."
"Uh, right. Well, I believe that's the sign for me to leave," Carissa said, "but you two might want to get a room. The grocery aisle isn't the place for that sort of thing, and I'm pretty open-minded. So we'll see you both on Saturday." With that she sauntered off.
Finally. He relaxed. But then he realized he was still holding on to Mari's shoulders. He reluctantly let go.
"That was fun. We should start a theater group or something." She chuckled.
"It was. Thanks for coming to my rescue. She's been asking me out since I arrived at the base. I do a lot of stupid stuff, I confess, but messing around with the CO's daughter is not on the list."
"I can tell she's used to men saying yes, so you must be quite the challenge. She's superattractive, though."
He shrugged. "Not my type. You have no idea how grateful I am to you right now. She's too much, a real piece of work."
"I should be thanking you," Mari said. "In fact, let me make you dinner. A man cannot live on tortilla chips and salsa alone." She pointed at his cart. "And I was making tacos anyway. We could combine our resources and have a great meal."
A home-cooked meal didn't sound so bad. It had been a while. He could cook, but doing it for one person always seemed a waste.
Though sharing a meal with Mari might not be the best idea. In just the few minutes they'd spent together, he'd become very attracted to her. And that was not a good thing. Better to let her down easy. "You don't have to do that, we helped each other out."
"I know, but I want to and I " She stared down at her feet as if she were afraid to say whatever was coming next.
"What?" he asked.