The camping trip from hell may be the first stop on the road to happily-ever-after.
Navy SEAL Renzo Bianchi has a soft spot for Canaan Finley, and not only because the man makes a mean smoothie. He’s the first guy to get Renzo’s motor revving in a long time. But when he agrees to Canaan’s insane charade—one all-access fake boyfriend, coming right up—he never expects more than a fling.
Creating a hot Italian SEAL boyfriend to save face seemed like a good idea…until his friends called Canaan’s bluff. Now he’s setting off into the woods with the very man who inspired his deception, and Canaan is not the outdoorsy type. The sparks are already flying when a flash flood separates them from their group, leaving Renzo and Canaan very much trapped…very much alone in the wilderness.
Working together to come up with a plan for survival is sexier than either of them expects. But back in the real world, being a couple is bringing its own set of hazards…
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Canaan slipped on a puddle behind the register, narrowly avoiding hitting the tile floor, before he even got a chance to ogle the latest group of SEALs walking through the Smoothie Palace doors.
"Look out! I'll mop in a minute." His coworker Sage reached around him to add strawberries to the blender.
Fitness Friday was his favorite day of the week. Two-for-Tuesdays tended to bring in the civilian base employees in cheerful clumps, and on Wacky Wednesdays young ensigns and newly minted lieutenants enjoyed one-upping each other's bizarre combos. But something about Smoothie Palace's protein drink specials on Fridays brought out the SEALs.
Sure, Coronado was overrun with SEALs as it was, but Canaan looked forward to seeing the guys come in, many still in PT shorts and T-shirts, all sweaty and glowing from the obstacle course or running. They laughed and joked and tended to tip better than the civilians or the brass. And the eye candy ... Good lord. Biceps and abs and thighs for days. It was no wonder that he worked with a little extra something something in his step Fridays.
"Your eyes get bigger and bigger every week," Sage teased as she worked.
"Shut up." He went back to the register to help the next person in line.
He'd own his SEAL fetish. Just like he owned this job. The wages sucked, even with tips, but the hours fit with his class schedule, and the boss was a nice man who always asked Canaan how school was coming and didn't give him crap. So Canaan did his best, delivered superior customer service, and enjoyed the perks of the job, SEALs included.
He was helping a ripped African American SEAL with a gleaming shaved head, badass biceps tattoo, and shiny wedding ring when some of his favorite customers came in, all wearing camo work uniforms. They almost always came in together — a taller auburn-haired guy with a scorpion tat on his forearm, a shorter burly man, an earnest younger guy, and the muscled Italian stud of Canaan's dreams. They all had fun SEAL nicknames too. Bacon. Curly. Shiny. Rooster. The Italian guy was Rooster, which suited his styled dark hair, muscles that outdid even his built friends, Mediterranean coloring, and endless swagger.
They took their time deciding on their order, so Canaan waited patiently and tried not to look like he was listening in.
"Shiny, you need to put a ring on that girl of yours." Curly was newly married and apparently eager to get others hitched up. "Get out of the barracks."
"Aww, we're not that serious. She just came to your wedding as a favor. I think." Shiny didn't look any too sure, and Canaan felt for the guy. Not knowing how serious a hookup wanted to be was one of Canaan's talents.
"She seemed nice." Rooster had the best voice, deep with more than a hint of East Coast to it. "Just tell her how you feel. Women tend to dig when you're straightforward."
Shiny groaned, and apparently none of them were in any hurry to order, which was fine. More Rooster watching for him.
"Easy for you to give advice. You're the one who brought a dude to Curly's wedding."
Wait. Hold up. Rooster did what now? Canaan had been flirting rather shamelessly with the whole group for months now, and his favorite one was known to bat for his team? Hello. Red-letter day. They could take till next year to order, and Canaan would just bask in this amazing revelation.
"Are we going to order?" Shiny stepped forward, got his usual Power Lifter Pineapple, and seemed awfully eager to move down the counter away from his friends. Curly got the Strong Arm Strawberry, and Bacon got that week's special — a cherry base blended with vanilla protein powder. He was a good tipper, so Canaan made sure he got a wide smile and thanks in return before he moved farther down the counter. Which left Canaan all alone with Rooster, who was taking forever studying the menu.
"Tell me. Is the cherry stuff that good?" he asked Canaan in that voice of his — all confident and commanding but silky smooth like cheesecake.
"Dunno. Do you like cherries?" Canaan reached below him to the fridge where they had a few sample cups made up with the special. "Wanna try a sip?"
Rooster swallowed with the sort of seriousness Canaan imagined wine tasters used, then grimaced. "Too sweet."
"Now that's a complaint I don't hear very often." Canaan winked at him. "You like something a bit more ... complex?"
Rooster's mouth quirked. "Not complicated. I don't like nine million ingredients."
"I can handle uncomplicated." Canaan gave him his real smile, not the one he kept on stock for good tippers, but the one that said he really wouldn't mind another twenty minutes of this banter as long as the line stayed slow. "How about the High Octane — it's coffee, chocolate, protein powder, and energy blend. Not too many ingredients, but really good. It's what I get on breaks."
"Your favorite?" Rooster smiled back, a lazy grin that made Canaan's stomach all warm and wobbly. "Guess I can give it a whirl."
Canaan rang him up, and since Sage was still busy with the other three and there wasn't a line, he started the drink for Rooster, fetching the cold brew coffee from the fridge.
"Big plans this weekend?" he asked while he made the drink.
"Working out with a friend tomorrow. Gonna film some new moves."
"Please tell me you put those clips online." Thinking fast, Canaan grabbed a blank stamp card and a pen and thrust it at him. "I'll fill a stamp card for you if you give me your handle."
"Well ..." Rooster's eyes shifted to his friends, who were deep in conversation. "Navy doesn't exactly approve of me being on social media ..."
"Not gonna tell a soul," Canaan promised. "I just like workout videos and fitness pics." And how.
"Yeah?" Rooster gave him an appraising stare, one that had Canaan damn near preening. "That so?"
"Yup." Canaan set the blender going and returned to the counter. He filled a stamp card and waved it at Rooster. "So how about it?"
"Okay, okay." Rooster scribbled something on the other card and pushed it at Canaan. Their fingers brushed as they traded cards, thick callused fingers rubbing against his, and Canaan swore his toes curled from the contact.
"So how about you?" Rooster asked as Canaan poured his drink into a purple plastic Smoothie Palace cup.
"How about me what?" Canaan was still busy celebrating getting his username and felt a little punch-drunk on the contact to boot.
Here was the opening Canaan had been waiting months for, and no way was he missing it. "Dunno. I get off at nine. Wanna help me find trouble?"
"You make that offer to all your customers?" Rooster studied him intently, and Canaan straightened his spine, trying to pass whatever test he was giving him.
"Just my favorite ones." The more honest answer would be just you, but Canaan didn't want to seem too desperate, so he kept his voice light and easy. "How 'bout it?"
"Rooster!" Bacon called out before Rooster could answer. "Come on. We've got that meeting in ten."
"Sorry. Gotta head out. Thanks for the card." Rooster gave him a smile but no answer before hurrying over to join his friends.
Crap. That was most likely a firm no, which was what Canaan deserved for crossing the line between flirty and inviting with a customer. But it sure as hell didn't stop him from looking up the guy's social media when he took his break a couple of hours later. He'd worked hard for that intel — including using one of his allotted free drink cards that he usually reserved for when he screwed up an order — and he wasn't going to turn down some prime viewing material.
And Rooster was good. His parkour-style workouts where he went through homemade obstacle courses were mesmerizing. There was no mention of SEALs or even San Diego on his social media, and his Philly-Fit handle further obscured his deets. That and he was always in civilian clothing. Usually shirtless, thank you sweet Jesus, showing off pecs that could double as Hummer hubcaps. Tons of selfies too — him posing in various mirrors, commenting on his physique with adorable little quips like "Only angle I really like my abs" or "Think I'm finally getting the triceps definition I wanted." Humble brags from a guy who clearly believed in treating his body like a temple, and Canaan was all about worshiping at that altar.
He was deep into Rooster's videos when his phone rang. Damian. Who could never just text like a normal person, but had to call.
"Yeah?" He paced away from the back door.
"You on break?"
"Yep. Only have a few minutes." That Damian knew his schedule would be more disconcerting if they hadn't known each other for well over a decade. And it went both ways. Canaan knew that Damian and the rest of the band were in Spain this week, finishing up their latest European tour. He hadn't done the time zone math, but Damian's languid, slightly hoarse voice said that they'd just wrapped a show and he was kicking back with a drink in a hotel somewhere. Once upon a time, that voice had done things to Canaan's insides, revved him up, but now all it did was make his back muscles tighten.
"That's fine. Just wanted to call to confirm we're still on for the trip. Kelly is making the final arrangements with the wilderness tour company, and they want firm numbers. So you are bringing someone, right?"
"I ... Not sure. Do I have to?" He wished Kelly could have been the one to call him — this whole camping expedition with Canaan's old band was Kelly's idea, and he was infinitely easier to deal with than Damian, who had all sorts of rules and requests for what should be a chill weekend.
"Canaan. Baby. Everyone will be coupled up. I'm bringing Eric, and everyone else has someone. I don't want things to be awkward between us."
God forbid they were awkward. Like breaking up in Prague hadn't been bad enough, or Damian taking up with Eric, the replacement drummer, mere minutes later, now apparently they had to socialize like adults because the rest of their friend circle demanded it. And quite honestly, Canaan had lost enough the past few years. He wasn't losing his oldest friends too. "Things will be fine."
"Of course," Damian said, a little too quickly and brightly. "But last time we talked, you said you were seeing someone ... Just bring them. It'll be easier. On everyone."
More like easier on Eric's jealous ass. And had Canaan said that? He supposed it was possible in some vague make-Damian-happy way that he'd alluded to such a thing.
"I ... uh ..." The absolute best thing would be to say the truth, which was that he was exactly as single as he'd been boarding that plane in Prague. As single as he'd been in the three years since, flitting from hookup to hookup, nothing sticking. But what came out was "He's a SEAL. You know, unpredictable hours. Could be deployed anytime. Can't say for sure if he'll have leave ..."
"Well, can he try?" Damian did not sound in the least impressed by the SEAL factoid. "And really, I'm happy for you. About time you moved on."
"Yeah." About that ...
"Listen. Since your guy's military and all, I'll just tell Kelly you're bringing him. I'll cover the fee, and you guys just show up."
"I've got money." Not much, but he did have some, and didn't feel the best about letting Damian float him. Not to mention his imaginary boyfriend.
"My present to you. I insist. Just get your ass to Flagstaff."
"I'll try. Probably by myself though because —"
"Bring. Him. Don't be a loser."
Too late. He already was a loser. Giant L and all. Twenty-six and concocting relationships out of thin air like some sixteen-year-old might. And he'd be showing up alone with some bullshit story, and things would be awkward with Damian and Eric, because of course they would be.
But he'd be with the rest of his guys again, get to catch up on their lives, hear all the tour stories he'd missed. The togetherness would be worth any issues with Damian or feeling like a fifth wheel. Damian might be a class-A jerk at times, but Canaan could still remember when he'd been a brash, confident teenager who'd turned his knees to jelly. And even though Damian had changed, Kelly and Jules and the others had been there for Canaan through some of his hardest times. He missed their old closeness even more than he missed performing with the band. Sure, he had friends locally, but there was something special about hanging with people he'd known since he was fourteen.
As he ended the call, Rooster's workout video resumed playing. He flexed and moved with grace, and simply watching him calmed Canaan's racing pulse.
Man, if he really were able to conjure up a SEAL boyfriend, he'd look an awful lot like Rooster, have that same silky voice and slow smile. And in an ideal world, Rooster would take him up on his offer to meet, and that would be the start of something special ...
Nope. Canaan lived in the real world, one where he lacked superpowers and where he had gotten himself into this mess, and he would have to get himself out.
Renzo wiped the sweat from his forehead. So much for spring — it was hot outside already and hotter still in the dive locker.
"Rooster, man, tell me why we always wind up with these crap jobs?" Even poor Shiny's usual optimism was dipping as they finished up their inventory of dive equipment.
"Because we're not chiefs yet." Renzo went for honesty as he checked oxygen canisters. Maybe if he were a chief, he could shed the stupid Rooster nickname. "Man, I cannot wait. Inventory is the worst."
"At least we had enough time to grab a snack." Shiny gave him a goofy grin. "God bless Fitness Fridays."
You're telling me. "Yup."
He'd let Shiny think he had the idea to get smoothies, when really Renzo had been looking forward to it all week. The guys would razz him hard if they knew that, and he did not need them giving him grief just because he enjoyed bantering with one particular Smoothie Palace employee. Big full lips. Pale green eyes. Lush blond hair. The sort of compact build that always worked for him, combined with infectious confidence. The flirty guy whose name tag said Canaan was just fun, and after a long, boring week, a little pick-me-up was exactly what he'd needed.
While he hadn't intended to give out his social media handle, he wasn't going to waste time beating himself up over it. It wasn't exactly a state secret — plenty of the guys knew about his videos — and Canaan didn't really seem like the sort of guy to go reporting him to the higher-ups, who might have something to say about Renzo's little hobby. And if Canaan dug fit guys? So much the better for the little bit of flirt they had going on.
Not that anything was going to come of it — Renzo wasn't looking to start anything, and he had a feeling that Canaan hit on a lot of customers without being particularly serious about the follow-through. Besides, Renzo didn't hook up with base people. He liked to keep that part of his life as separate as possible, just like his videos. No need to have to give up smoothies just because things went sideways.
"So I took your advice." Shiny wasn't one to work in silence, and Renzo made an encouraging noise to let him know he was listening. "Texted my girl. Told her I wanted to go out tonight."
"Good for you." Renzo straightened another canister. He liked everything facing the same way, straight rows of evenly spaced equipment.
"Think I'll tell her I want to be exclusive." Shiny's cheeks turned more than a little green at the prospect. And this was why Renzo didn't do relationships — too much time being nauseous waiting to see how the other person wanted to drop-kick your heart. "You wanna come?"
Not a chance. No way was Renzo getting in the middle of a state-of-the-relationship talk. "Think I've got plans."
"You sure? I can probably get Mary to bring a friend. Her friend Katie thinks you're ripped."
"I don't need a setup."
Shiny frowned. "Is it because she's a girl? I can ask Mary —"
"Dude." Renzo rolled his eyes at Shiny. "I go all ways, but I don't need help getting laid."
Setups like what Shiny was proposing were particularly challenging. Tons of people were SEAL chasers — only interested in him for his trident and potential as arm candy. And while appreciation of his physique could be fun, it got old after a while.
"Fine. Suit yourself." Shiny sighed. "So what are your plans for tonight?"
Unbidden, an image of Canaan popped into Renzo's head. We could get into trouble. Wasn't that what he'd said? And trouble sounded damn good. An antidote for the restlessness that kept sneaking up on him. He did not deal with downtime well, and the lull their team was in wasn't helping and neither was his sorta-self-imposed dry spell. Maybe he did need something, but not an evening watching Shiny dance around talking serious to his girl.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Rough Terrain"
Copyright © 2019 Annabeth Albert.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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