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In the space of forty-five minutes, White House public relations assistant Joan DaCosta had been demoted from an admiral all the way to a lieutenant, junior grade.
She tried not to take it personally, or as a quantitative measure of her perceived importance here on the base, but rather as a crash course in U.S. Navy rankings.
Interestingly, not only did the face time get shorter and shorter with each step she was pushed down the chain of command, but the men inside the gleaming white uniforms got younger and more handsome.
Not that the admiral wasn't worthy of his own page in a hunk-of-the month calendar with his thick salt-and-pepper hair and that solid mix of both laughter and worry lines around his eyes. Since he was the Commander of Naval Special Warfare Command-or CDRNAVSPECWARCOM in Navyspeak-Joan would have been concerned if he hadn't had a worry line or two.
He'd greeted her upon her arrival in Coronado, and she'd instantly relaxed. She'd met Admiral Morton "Call me Chip" Crowley several times before on her own turf, back in Washington, D.C. He was that rare type of person who actually listened while others spoke.
But her sigh of relief proved to be a little premature when Crowley gently and almost apologetically passed her off to Rear Admiral Larry Tucker, the base commander.
Tucker was a bona fide dumbass, and she knew it even before he opened his mouth. In her job, she'd met enough self-important dumbasses to accurately ID them at first glance. And Tucker, with his too-handsome face and his impeccably combed hair-each strand inventoried and strategically placed to hide the fact that it was thinning-was a textbook case.
He was also a slimeball. He held her hand much too long after their handshake, his gaze lingering on her breasts, with a smile that said, "We both know you want me, because I am, after all, Mr. Wonderful."
Ick. He was wearing a wedding ring, which was a great big double ick.
Joan wanted to wash her hand as he bombastically reassured her that he would personally take charge of security on the base for the President and his daughter's upcoming visit.
She didn't know whether to be ecstatic or horrified at that news. Did it mean Tucker would be too busy Being Important to deal with the day-to-day details, i.e., all those little things on her agenda? Or did it mean that he'd be getting out his Krazy Glue and permanently bonding himself to her side?
The glue stayed in his desk, thank God. And she was far too relieved to be insulted when Tucker clearly got a rush of superiority as he lobbed her in the direction of one significantly lower ranking Lieutenant Commander Tom Paoletti, who was merely the commanding officer of SEAL Team Sixteen.
Team Sixteen was the group of SEALs the President had specifically requested meeting during his upcoming visit. Team Sixteen was the group of SEALs with the incredible record of outstanding bravery and efficiency and ingenuity and stamina-all those things that made a huge difference when fighting a war against terrorism.
The rear admiral went off to be superior somewhere else as Paoletti ushered Joan into his office with a brief handshake.
And, oh my God. Wasn't he delicious? He was a Man, with a capital M and no hint of smarm about him. The broad chest, the jawline, the glint of intelligence in his hazel eyes . . .
Joan managed to keep herself from checking out his butt in those cute, pristine white uniform pants they all wore. She'd hated it when Tucker had done it to her, and she was determined not to disrespect Paoletti in the exact same way.
But, oh dearie, dearie me.
The commanding officer of Team Sixteen was about her age, maybe a few years older. His hair-or lack of it-was doing that Bruce Willis thing, and he took it just like Bruce. Like a real man, he was just going to let it disappear without a fuss. It so obviously didn't matter to him. And why should it? With a body like his . . .
She forced herself to focus on his face. On his hands. No wedding ring.
Stop it, Joan!
He was talking in a smoky voice about how honored the team was to be chosen to receive a presidential citation. "I understand the President's wish to visit the men on the base here in Coronado. And my team and I, of course, will be willing to give him a complete tour, if he should, in fact, decide to come-"
Joan cut him off. "Excuse me, Commander, I guess you haven't heard, but the visit is on the official schedule, and has been for quite some time. As far as I know, President Bryant will be here only for the morning, to present the citation and observe a demonstration, but his daughter will be arriving in a few days. And she'll definitely be taking a tour."
The muscle jumped in his jaw as he looked at his watch. He was not a happy camper. Joan wasn't sure why, although she suspected she knew. President Bryant's daughter Brooke, from his first marriage, was known throughout the world as "the wild child" despite the fact that she was pushing forty.
It was Joan's job to provide public relations opportunities in which Brooke would be unable to embarrass either herself or her father as she "helped" with his reelection campaign.
Brooke Bryant was actually quite a nice person. But she'd had terrible luck as far as news photographers went. Whenever she made a mistake, someone had always been there to record it for posterity and throw it onto the front page of USA Today.
And okay, admittedly Brooke had made her share of mistakes. She was notorious for falling in love with total shitheads and then acting stupid after finding out just how much of a shithead her latest boyfriend truly was. And since the shithead index in Washington, D.C., was pretty high, she'd had plenty of opportunities to expand her resume of mistakes.
Lieutenant Commander Paoletti was probably imagining the embarrassment of having pictures of Brooke falling off some Navy pier plastered on the front page of every major news publication and all over the Internet.
"This is something we'll need more time to discuss," Paoletti told her. "I'm really sorry, I wish I could talk right now, but I have another meeting I have to get to. I've made arrangements for you to tour the base this afternoon-in about ten minutes, actually, if that's okay with you."
"We'll connect later," he told her. "If not today, then tomorrow or the next day. I'm going to leave you now in the very capable hands of Lieutenant Casper Jacquette, my XO."
"I'm free for dinner." Joan followed the commander out of his office. Connect was such an interesting word choice for him to have used. She was a firm believer in the "you cannot win if you do not play" adage, and she'd always had a real thing for Bruce Willis. "If that's convenient."
"Oh," he said, scratching his chin. "No. Thank you. Tonight's not good for me. I've already got plans to meet my fiancée."
Aha. Information received. And so gracefully and painlessly delivered, too. "Completely understood." Joan smiled to make sure he understood, too, so that there'd be no awkwardness or embarrassment. "You can't blame me for trying, Commander."
"Thank you," he said easily. "My ego thanks you, too." His smile was a killer. Whoever this fiancée was, she was one lucky babe. And probably in a real rush to get a wedding band on Paoletti's ring finger. "You're welcome to join us. I'm sure Kelly wouldn't mind."
"Unless it's really urgent that we talk tonight, I'll pass," Joan told him. "I'm still on D.C. time. I should really use this evening to de-jet lag." She was going to be in town for about four weeks, taking a vacation after Brooke's visit. Normally she'd just try to stay on East Coast time, but if she spent anything more than a few days out of her usual time zone, her body naturally adjusted. She might as well try to get it over with all at once.
"Maybe we can all do lunch later this week," he said. "I happen to know that Kelly really would like to meet you. The West Wing is her favorite TV show."
Joan laughed. "Tell her that working there is great, but not as great as it would be if Josh Lyman really were in the next office over."
Commander Paoletti laughed, too, as he led her into another room. He had a terrific laugh. What a shame. But no real surprise. The smart, handsome, honorable, gracious, nice ones were always already taken.
It was just as well. The dead last thing she needed was to get involved with a Navy SEAL that she was working with. Talk about idiotic choices.
No, even if there were no fiancée, Tom Paoletti and his liquid eyes and sexy laugh and fantasy body were best placed in the look-but-don't-touch category.
And, since it was really just eye candy that she wanted, Paoletti's XO-whatever XO meant-was top shelf and a fine replacement.
Lieutenant Jacquette was a strikingly handsome and enormous African-American man-not so much tall as he was broad. And it wasn't the fat kind of broad, either. No, he was just plain huge, with the kind of shoulders that looked wide enough to carry the weight of the entire world, if need be.
His office was smaller than the lieutenant commander's, but they didn't stay there long after Paoletti excused himself with one last smile.
Jacquette led her back into the hall, down the stairs, and out into the brilliance of the afternoon as he repeated everything that Paoletti had told her.
His cell rang, and as he grimly excused himself and took the call, Joan had enough time both to find her sunglasses and to search through the long list of Navy abbreviations that Meredith had put into her file before she'd left her office last night.
XO . . . XO . . .
Executive officer. Second in command. Aha. This Lieutenant Jacquette was Navy SEAL Team Sixteen's Mr. Spock.
Thank God for all those Star Trek reruns she'd watched in fifth grade, or she'd be completely in the dark.
"If there's anything you need while you're here," Jacquette told her with an appropriately Vulcan-like intensity, "come see me. Oh, good, here's Muldoon."
Joan looked up, and there, indeed, was Muldoon. Silhouetted by the sparkling backdrop of sunlight dancing on the ocean, this Muldoon couldn't have made a more dramatic appearance if he'd tried.
He was all broad shoulders and wide chest and long legs, packaged neatly into that same gleaming white uniform.
From a distance, he looked like a Lieutenant Commander Paoletti clone, with the same man-sized, extra-ripped build.
"Joan DaCosta-Lieutenant junior grade Michael Muldoon," Jacquette intoned.
The choir of angels missed their cue as Muldoon came close enough for her to see his face. But, hot damn, a face like that demanded a full forte gloria in excelsis deo.
Yes, as fit the pattern, Lieutenant junior grade-which made him sound as if he were a Daisy Scout compared to the non-junior lieutenants-Michael Muldoon was more picture-perfect handsome than both Jacquette and Paoletti combined. Of course, he was also only about twenty years old.
If the trend continued, within the next three minutes she was going to be handed off to a ten-year-old ensign, and then to that toddler seaman recruit she’d seen scrubbing the floor when she’d first arrived on the naval base.
“Lieutenant Muldoon is going to be your SEAL liaison for the duration of your visit,” Jacquette informed her.
It really was remarkable. The guy was right out of central casting. Hello, Gertrude? Yeah, we need a Navy SEAL hero type over on lot twenty-four this afternoon. Make sure he stands well over six feet tall, is built like a Greek god, has neon blue eyes, golden brown hair, and a face more hand-some than Brad Pitt’s, will ya?
And he should definitely be ridiculously young, so as to make me feel as old as possible by actually addressing me as ma’am.
Shit. When had she become a ma’am? Thirty-two didn’t honestly qualify as ma’am-dom, did it?
“Lieutenant Muldoon will give you today’s tour,” Jacquette said. “And he’ll accompany you whenever you’re here on base. Please try to stay with him at all times.”
Oh-ho. Lieutenant Junior was her baby-sitter. Wasn’t that annoying news?
And although he gave no outward sign—Junior was either unswervingly polite or brain dead—Joan had to believe that this was not an assignment that he’d requested. No, this was one he’d gotten stuck with, poor thing. He was doomed to be as miserable as she was.
“That’s not just for your own personal safety,” Jacquette continued, “but also for security reasons, of course. Again, if you need anything . . .”
Enough games. The U.S. Navy might not take this PR opportunity for Brooke Bryant seriously, but she sure as hell did. “I need full access to this base, Lieutenant,” Joan told him.
He pretended not to understand. “Then I’ll let you and Lieutenant Muldoon get to it,” the XO said smoothly. “Enjoy your tour.”
“Sir, I have full security clearance,” she said.
But he was already taking another call on his cell—or at least pretending to take one—ending their conversation by turning his broad back and walking away.
And then there she was. All alone with Junior.
“Do you want fries with that?” Mary Lou Starrett asked.
The skinny sailor with a bad case of acne hardly looked at her once, let alone twice. “Just a vanilla shake.”
“Small or large?” There was a time—not so long ago—when this kid wouldn’t have been able to take his eyes off of her. And she, well, she wouldn’t have given an enlisted loser like him the time of day.
“Large. And I’m in a real rush, so if you don’t mind ...?” He finally looked at her, and it was with “Come on, you moron” in his eyes.
Mary Lou took a chicken sandwich from the warming bin, squishing a big hole in the bun with her thumb as she put it into the paper sack. It wasn’t as satisfying as spitting into his shake, but it would have to do.
She took his money and gave him his change, and he grabbed his food and left. And the lunchtime rush at the Navy base’s McDonald’s was officially over.
Her husband, Lieutenant Sam Starrett of U.S. Navy SEAL Team Sixteen, hadn’t come in with the rest of the crowd. Even though he knew she was working today. Even though he knew this was one of the three weekdays she dropped their daughter, Haley, at Mrs. Ustenski’s day care center and actually got her ass out of the house . . .
Her twenty pounds overweight, size humongous, never-gonna-wear-a-thong-again big-ass ass.
It had been thirteen months since Haley was born. And it had been longer than that since she and Sam had had sex. Real sex. Not this do-it-in-the-dark-with-any-random-blow-
up-doll-available-type sex they’d had very infrequently since then.
Mary Lou slowly organized the stack of paper cups along-side the soda machine, knowing if she didn’t look busy, Aaron the asshole manager would find something for her to do.
Maybe if she lost this weight, Sam would look at her again as if she were a woman, instead of a sack of potatoes. Maybe when she finally stopped breast-feeding. Everyone said that breast-feeding made you lose weight, but maybe she was some kind of freak of nature. Maybe after she weaned Haley, she’d get thinner. And maybe then Sam would want her.
He stayed up late, watching TV in the living room, waiting until after she was asleep to come to bed. Or so he thought. She was usually awake, lying there wishing that he would reach for her, but knowing that he wouldn’t.
If she wanted some, she had to make it very obvious. And even then, there had been times when he shut her down. Which eventually became so mortifying, she’d flat out stopped trying.
But maybe if she lost this weight . . .
Desperate, Mary Lou had tried over the past few months to make Sam happy by making his home beautiful. She cleaned the shit out of it every single day.
She tried to please him in other ways, too. By being agree-able. By holding her tongue and avoiding arguments at all costs.
She might not be the thinnest wife in the world, but she was working hard to be the least troublesome.
For instance, Sam had made a stink about her visiting the Team Sixteen building on the base. Apparently—even though the other SEALs’ wives came to visit frequently—
Sam didn’t want Mary Lou to visit him at work. So she’d made sure she didn’t bother him there, unless it was important or unless he was being deployed. Then, of course, all bets were off.
Their marriage wasn’t perfect, but what marriage was? And he didn’t have to marry her. Some guys wouldn’t have, despite the fact that she’d been pregnant.
No, he’d married her because on some level, deep down, he loved her. And now she finally had someone—not just someone, a Navy SEAL—to take care of her. They had a daughter together, and a house and two cars—although hers was pretty much a rolling piece of crap.
Sooner or later, she’d lose the weight and make Sam happy again. He’d admit that he loved her, and maybe then the rest of her life would turn around, too. She’d finally be accepted by the other wives of the SEALs in Team Sixteen.
They were polite to her, sure. But she couldn’t call a single one of them friend.
It wasn’t fair—the wives’ club was supposed to be part of the package, one of the perks of marrying an officer in the U.S. Navy SEALs. Her life was supposed to be glorious now, filled with wonderful girlfriends with sweet little babies like her own Haley, with Sam hurrying home to her every night after his training missions here in Coronado.
He was supposed to look at her with the same keen hunger in his blue eyes that had made her weak in the knees when she’d first laid eyes on him in the Ladybug Lounge nearly two years ago. He was supposed to make jokes and then they would laugh the way they’d laughed back then.
Of course, back then they’d both been drunk off their asses pretty much all the time they were together. They’d make plans to meet at the bar, and she’d arrive early and get warmed up. He’d come in, pound down a few, and then they’d stagger back to her place and get naked and laugh some more.
Course back then she usually ended up drinking until she puked or passed out.
But she’d grown up with a drunk for a mother. And she was good and goddamn sure that wasn’t going to be the case for her little Haley.
Shit. Aaron was going to ask her to clean the fry machine. She just knew it.
But, “Counter,” he said instead. She had customers. Glory be to God. She turned with relief at the reprieve and froze.
It was Alyssa Locke. Standing in front of Mary Lou’s counter, intently gazing up at the menu as if it had radically changed in the past few years. Her FBI partner was with her.
Jules Something. Sam had told her he was actually gay.
He was even prettier than Alyssa, and that was saying something, because Alyssa Locke was beautiful.
She was slender, with slim hips and thighs. Of course, her breasts were barely there. Mary Lou probably wore a larger bra size at age eleven.
Her dark hair was cut boyishly short, accenting her exotic green eyes, her mocha-colored skin, her high cheekbones, and her full lips. Making her look extremely non-boyish.
They hadn’t noticed her, hadn’t recognized her. Please God, don’t let them recognize her.
“What was it I swore I’d never order again?” Alyssa asked her partner, her eyes still firmly on the menu.
“That was at the other place,” he said. “Burger Hell.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. What’s today’s special?” Jules asked, giving Mary Lou a wink.
Didn’t it figure? The one man who flirted with her today was gay.
Mary Lou didn’t pretend to laugh at his joke. She couldn’t. She couldn’t so much as smile.
She just stared at the cash register as she took their order, praying they wouldn’t recognize her, praying they would just take their lunch and leave.
“My turn to pay,” Alyssa said to Jules in a husky voice that didn’t have a trace of the deep south’s honey and syrup.Everything about her was all business. Efficient and precise. Except for that lush mouth.
As Mary Lou watched, she opened her fanny pack and got out her wallet.
And it was then, while Mary Lou was giving her change, that Alyssa’s gaze flickered down to her name badge.
And then up directly into Mary Lou’s eyes.
And there it was. Recognition. Realization of who was waiting on her dawned in Alyssa’s eyes. And Mary Lou couldn’t hide the fact that she knew damn well who Alyssa was, either.
For about seven seconds, no one spoke. Mary Lou actually dared to hope that Alyssa would turn away, pretend that flash of recognition had never happened. After all, there had to be at least several thousand women named Mary Lou in San Diego.
But no. Alyssa had to open her perfect mouth. “I didn’t realize you worked here.”
No shit, Sherlock. Mary Lou didn’t doubt for one second that Alyssa wanted to avoid her as much as she wanted to avoid seeing Alyssa. If Alyssa had known, she wouldn’t have come within two miles of this place.
“Yeah,” Mary Lou said instead. “I’ve been here for about three months now.” And just so that Alyssa wouldn’t think she had to work, that somehow Sam wasn’t providing for her, she added, “Three four-hour shifts a week. Just enough to get out of the house for a while. See a few people who don’t have diaper rash for a change.”
Jules was looking back and forth between Alyssa and Mary Lou as if he were mystified.
“This is Lieutenant Starrett’s wife,” Alyssa told him. He instantly became expressionless and bland. “Oh, right. Of course. Mary Lou. We met at your house about six months ago.”
Yes, they did. Right before Sam left for Indonesia. Mary Lou certainly remembered. It was right before Alyssa Locke left for Indonesia, too.
Are you in town to fuck my husband? The words were on the tip of her tongue, but she choked them back. She didn’t have to ask. She already knew. Sam still mumbled Alyssa’s name in his sleep.
He swore—repeatedly—that he hadn’t been with her since he and Mary Lou got married, that whatever had been between him and Alyssa was over and done with, a thing of the past. But it had been well over a year since Sam and Mary Lou got married. There was no way he’d still be dreaming about Alyssa if he wasn’t still seeing her.
Sam wasn’t the kind of man to go for months on end without sex. And he sure as hell wasn’t getting any from Mary Lou.
Jealousy clogged her throat and angry tears threatened to escape.
“It’s nice seeing you,” Alyssa said insincerely. Mary Lou just stood there as they took their food and pushed through the doors, out into the heat of the sunny afternoon.
“Earth to Mary Lou!”
She turned to find Aaron the asshole standing right next to her. “Where the heck did you go?” he asked, laughing as if he’d made a huge joke. “Standing there, spacing out, like someone came and vacuumed out your brain.”
It took everything in her to keep from slapping him simply for being a fool.
“Your husband called a while ago,” Aaron told her. “It was before you got here. I forgot to tell you. He said he’d try to make it in during lunch.”
Well, he hadn’t. And Mary Lou didn’t know whether to be upset about that or relieved. The only thing worse than see-ing
Alyssa would have been seeing Alyssa and Sam in the same room.
“He said to say he’s going out with the team tonight,” Aaron continued. “He won’t be back until tomorrow, probably in the evening.”
Of course Sam wouldn’t make it home tonight. That was no real surprise.
Alyssa Locke was in town.
Mary Lou took off her hat. She had to get out of there.
“Where are you going?” Aaron asked.
“I told Matt last time I was in,” Mary Lou lied. “I have to leave early today. Haley’s baby-sitter has a doctor’s appointment. I would’ve tried to get a replacement, but Matt said it was okay—”
“Go,” Aaron said. “See you next week.”
Mary Lou went.