Wounded in more ways than one, Navy SEAL Jax Taylor only understands short-term commitments. And when he walks into the Trident Bar in Virginia Beach, beautiful bartender Peri Halstead sizes him up right away. But that doesn’t stop her from teasing him with her sultry sarcasm, or taking him home—after she finds him passed out cold in the parking lot…
Soon enough, Jax is recovering at Peri’s in return for doing some handyman work, and the sexy sparks are flying—in almost every room in the house. Peri tells herself she deserves some fun, especially now that she’s a single mom with a cheating ex to deal with. But when it’s time for her and Jax to go their separate ways, the miles between them—and the danger that’s about to touch both their lives—has them wondering if Jax can learn to love more than the mission…
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Sand and Sin
By Dani Jace
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Dani Jace
All rights reserved.
Through shimmering waves of heat, Jax Taylor sighted his target through the second story window shielded by ratty, threadbare curtains. He shifted on his makeshift snipe stand, an overturned crib he'd found in the bombed-out mud-brick apartment complex. If he bit the big one today, his uncle and brothers in arms would probably be his only mourners. The latter would throw an epic party. After hours on watch, remnants of the crosshairs burned into his retina from the scope of his M14.
On loan to the army for the last few weeks, he counted down the days to when his team's deployment ended. He could already taste a cool one on the beach. The chilly Pacific would offer a perfect respite from the heat of this stinking hellhole where the only water in quantity soaked his desert camos as sweat.
AK-47 in hand, an insurgent finally scaled the low wall and sprinted across the street for a building occupied by US troops.
Game on, bastard.
His heart rate dropped. His breathing slowed. Increasing pressure on the trigger, he exhaled and squeezed. The target plowed headfirst into the dust before the sound of the bullet echoed back.
Gunfire peppered the stagnant air from every direction. He scrambled to his feet and shouldered his sniper rifle and gear bag. With his standard-issue Colt M4A1 assault weapon pointed, he crept down the stairs. At street level, he'd even the odds for the army boys.
If the fucking shit-storm continued, there wouldn't be much of an Afghan town left to protect.
Conforming to the doorway, he aimed and picked off a single gunman about to unload into the street filled with US soldiers. Outside, with his back to the plaster wall, he pinged targets like the metal ducks at a carnival.
Chatter in his earbud alerted him the guys were bugging out. An armored unit was already en route. He caught up and joined the rear guard. ETA two minutes.
Long enough to die over one hundred and twenty times.
Sweat and dirt stung his eyes. He shoved a magazine into his rifle, then touched the pistol holstered to his thigh for back up. Like an action movie, everything moved in slow motion. Dust swirled around them as tracer fire crisscrossed the street in sync with the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire. The grinding tracks and clack of a diesel engine announced the Bradley's arrival. Soldiers raced into the armored vehicle.
Jax slipped through last. Before the door closed, a bullet ricocheted, biting the back of his thigh. Warm wetness bathed his pants leg.
* * *
Forty-eight hours later, Jax fidgeted in the uncomfortable seat inside the cargo bay of a C-130 cargo plane bound for the States. The doctors refused to release him back to his SEAL team after they'd dug out the bullet. Luckily it hadn't nicked an artery. Armed with a shitload of antibiotics, he'd put in for leave and caught a mail hop to the East Coast. The bullet wound chafed his ass more than his leg, metaphorically speaking.
By early evening, the plane landed in Little Creek, Virginia. He exited and took a deep breath. Compared to the dusty desert, the salty air smelled sweet. He'd always been a water dog.
He scanned his phone for TJ's number and pressed send. They'd completed BUD/S, Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training but had been assigned to separate teams.
"You're here already?" He sounded surprised.
"Yeah, and without wheels. I need a drink in the worst way."
"Shit, Jax. We're packing out now for a night jump. How about tomorrow?"
Of all his fucking luck. A bar on base would do, but he'd kill for a decent cheeseburger and a chance to lay eyes on beautiful women in the flesh. He'd never realized how wonderful American women smelled until humping through the shithole towns of Afghanistan. "Where do you usually hang? I'll take a cab."
"Not anywhere near the base. I live closer to Oceana at the beach. I'll send my girlfriend to get you when she gets off work."
"Nah, I don't want to put her out. I can rent a car, but would you mind putting me up for a night or two so I don't have to drive back to Norfolk?"
"I'll text you the Trident's address and mine. It's on the way and they have the best burgers. If you get too drunk, call Amy and she'll pick you up."
After catching a ride with another SEAL leaving base, Jax made it to a car rental before closing. The GPS directed him to the Trident, located in a small shopping strip a few miles north of Oceana Naval Base. The sign bore the SEAL special ops standard of an eagle on an anchor with a trident in one claw and a pistol in the other. SEALs had nicknamed their insignia the Budweiser because of its resemblance to the famous beer's logo.
He called the number TJ had given him.
"Hello." Amy answered.
"Hi, this is Jackson Taylor, a friend of TJ's."
"Oh, hey, Jax. TJ said you'd be coming over. Are you on your way?"
"I'm stopping for dinner first. Can I bring you anything?"
"No, thanks. Just don't drive if you have too much to drink. I know how a first night back is with TJ. Call me. I don't mind. I'll be up late studying for my business final anyway."
"Thanks, Amy. I owe you." He climbed from the compact. Stiff from the transatlantic trip, he limped a few steps but righted his gait before opening the heavy oak door. In his bar experiences, such an entrance usually led to a man cave.
Inside, darkness enveloped him, matching his mood. Pain meds and exhaustion made him irritable. He was still pissed about not being allowed to rejoin his team, and doubly so because TJ had a training op circumventing their party. So much for buddy reunions.
Behind the bar, a tall, lean beauty glanced up from the beer taps. The gnawing ache in his leg disappeared under scrutiny of wide, sea green eyes. Long, wavy hair surrounded her shoulders like a lion's mane. His fingers itched to tangle in the strands. Other more intimate visions flitted through his mind.
Months without a woman made him a sick bastard. Probably in stark contrast to the public's standard perception of a SEAL, but they didn't know or understand a Special Operator's life. What they did for love of country and their brothers in arms. For him, the best antidote after a gruesome mission was down-and-gritty sex.
Before he readjusted his sour expression, she stepped in front of him. Her lovely gaze branded him with I got your number, sailor.CHAPTER 2
Peri Halstead approached her newest patron as he saddled up on a bar chair. His steely-eyed glint hinted at danger. Most of the Trident's patrons did. "Wow, I've only seen one other man stride into this place with a more pissed-off expression than yours."
"Your ex?" Mr. Dark Blues matched her sarcasm.
She liked him already. The small scar on his chin kept him from appearing too pretty. "Insightful. Let me guess ... vodka tonic."
He narrowed his gaze.
"Martini?" She smiled and tossed her hair over her shoulder. "You're too GQ for domestic beer. Heineken?"
He tightened his jaw.
She must have struck a nerve with the pretty boy comment. "Whiskey on the rocks?"
Raising a brow, he lifted his chin.
Such swagger. She slid a cocktail napkin on the bar in front of him. "You gotta be a Jack man."
He grinned, revealing near perfect teeth.
Delighted at winning their little game, she winked and stepped away to fetch his drink.
Usually, she went for the rugged variety of handsome, but his straight nose with slightly elevated bridge was sexy as hell. She poured him a double shot over ice and returned, planting it in front of him.
"My buddy, TJ, said y'all have the biggest and best cheeseburgers."
"Damn, a psychic bartender? Guessed my brand and my name." He winked.
Eyes as dark blue as a stormy ocean. Lord, she needed to keep her distance with this one. "Wish I was. I'd have more money in the bank. Actually, I've seen the picture he carries of you guys partying after BUD/S graduation. TJ talks about you often. Are you here for training?"
"Currently in a holding pattern." With a roll of his shoulders, he scowled and thumped his glass down.
Not linebacker thick, he was more like a running back — built for speed. "They call you GQ." A Texan not rugged enough to be branded Cowboy and too handsome for Tex.
He sipped his drink, then cleared his throat. "Did TJ share my birthday, too?"
"No. Just a story about you chasing some bad guys through the streets of a South American country in your birthday suit." Peri grinned.
"Touché." He held up his glass and shotgunned the remainder of his whiskey.
Usually immune to her bar patrons, she was blindsided with a lust she'd lidded since her daughter was born. "Where's TJ? Shouldn't your buddy be showing you the hot spots?"
"Jumping out of a C-130." He fiddled with his napkin.
"So, you just returned stateside today?"
He checked his expensive, matte-black, multi-function watch that would have marked him special-ops without their previous conversation. "About two hours ago."
"Months." He glanced around the bar, then to her.
"It's early. You still have time to remedy your just-back virgin status." She smirked.
His gaze burned into her like a blue flame. "Is that an offer?"
"Sorry, don't mix business with pleasure." For the first time since working at the Trident, she considered breaking her rule, as she thumped her pen on her ticket pad. "The local ladies show up later on in the evening. What'd you like on your burger?" Peri took his order and passed it to the cook in the kitchen.
Jax continued to draw her attention as she chatted and checked on drinks. No wedding band, but it didn't mean anything. Not many wore them on missions. Even if he wasn't involved, he was stationed on the opposite side of the country.
The only fantasy she might possibly hope to indulge in with the too-handsome SEAL would be a night or two of hot, sweaty, too-long-celibate sex. He could scratch her itch.
One of her regulars claimed the empty seat next to Jax. Her silent partner, Phil, a retired SEAL who had served in Iraq and had gone into counseling troubled teens afterward. Extremely astute at reading people, he'd find out what had Jax's chain pulled too tight.
Phil and Jax were engaged in conversation by the time she returned from the kitchen with his burger and fries. "Can I get you anything else?"
"Another Jack and some Ranch dressing for the fries, please." A slight smile tugged his thin, masculine lips.
"The standard." He cut his glance to Jax, then back to her and wiggled his brows.
Peri frowned as she reached in the cooler for a beer, annoyed by Phil's matchmaking. Or had Jax said something to him? Both wore cat ate canary expressions as she set their drinks before them.
"Phil says you make the dressing, Peri."
"Yep. Phil's been here since the Trident opened. He's the reason our clientele fits the name." And he'd given a stranger her first name.
* * *
Jax didn't count the night as a total loss. What guy could complain about having whiskey served by a gorgeous woman who smelled like citrus and the tropics? In compliance with his personal preferences, she wasn't a paling flower either.
The playful fire in her gaze amused him. However, she seemed none too happy he'd found out her name. No doubt, every sailor who walked through the door hit on her. It probably grew tiresome. Yet, she'd passed him a few lingering looks he found totally hot.
Although she more than met his qualifications, and might be a bit intrigued with him for the moment, he suspected she wasn't the type for a tryst — all he had to offer. He'd have to enjoy her beauty and saucy personality from across the bar during his brief visit. It didn't stop him from appreciating her long, lean lines as she came and went. Midway through his burger and fourth drink, the room swayed.
Determined to ignore the nagging pain in his leg after the long flight, he'd forgotten about the painkillers he'd taken. Several shots of booze later, he felt like someone had juiced him with a full body shot of Novocain.
He'd survived waterboard torture testing and he'd be damned if Vicodin and Jack would take him down. It didn't help he'd been awake for nearly thirty-six hours since leaving Germany.
Thankfully, Phil had struck a conversation at the opposite end of the bar. Jax fished for his wallet, laid some bills on the bar, and nodded to Peri when she glanced his way. He could have walked on nails or with a limp. He couldn't tell. He made it to the door and welcomed the sobering, spring air.
He rounded the corner of the building and reached for his cell. Before he found TJ's home number, everything dimmed.
* * *
Peri locked the rear door after closing. Weary, she slid into her fifteen-year-old pick-up truck before mentally running through her list of errands to do in the morning. She needed to price a new pool pump and shop for groceries for Sunday dinner. Sunday — the only day she'd have to spend with Haley over spring break before her father whisked her off to Disney World. The naval commander used his money to win Haley's love while she played parent.
After the grocery store, she needed to pick up the refill on her birth control pills. Why she wasted the money, she didn't know. And speaking of birth control, she maybe she should consider making an appointment for Haley.
Fantasizing about a steamy night with TJ's friend Jax seemed at odds with having a sixteen-year-old. Shit, at thirty-four, she had to be nearly five years his senior.
She cranked the engine and rounded the side of the building as her lights struck a form slumped against the brick wall.
Slamming on the brake made the tires to bark. As owner, she always kept an eye out for sailors ordering too many rounds, as did her table servers. She flung open the door and walked into the headlight beams. The man's head slumped against his chest. The expensive black wristwatch she'd seen earlier in the evening identified him. She knelt beside Jax.
Comatose aptly described his condition. He hadn't been drunk when walking into her bar and never finished his fourth drink. Most SEALs had hollow legs where alcohol was concerned, but some slipped in flasks filled with their favorite quaff to keep their bar tabs low. If she found liquor on him, she'd slap him from his stupor no matter how handsome his face.
His pulse beat bold and steady. He seemed okay, but she couldn't leave him and her staff had already headed home. She searched his jacket pockets, finding them empty except for his cell phone. "Jax."
No way to check his last calls on the military-issue encrypted phone and TJ was on night training. At nearly three a.m., even if she found a key on him, she didn't want to go searching for TJ's place. Shit again. "Jax." She shook his shoulder.
She patted his cheeks.
Yelling might startle him or provoke a violent response. She leaned closer and pressed his thigh.
"Fuck!" He jerked as his eyelids flew open. Grimacing, he slapped her hand away.
"I'm sorry. What did I do?" A sticky dampness cooled her fingertips. "Fuck is right, sailor. You're bleeding."
"It's nothing." He shook his head as if clearing cobwebs.
"Come on." She helped him to his feet. He'd left the bar hours ago and she worried about hypothermia if he'd been passed out that long.
"Where's my rental?" He scanned the area.
"You have a car?"
"Peri?" He stared without focus.
"Yeah, and you owe me another tip."
He laughed, leaning on her as she guided him to her truck.
Now what to do with him?
She drove home.CHAPTER 3
Jax peeked from beneath half-closed eyelids, grateful for the near-dark surroundings. His mind reran last night's events with the film ending as he tried to call TJ's place. He sat up in bed with a groan. The large room had a wide, low ceiling. A huge TV with a game system sat at the end of the room near the stairs. A room over the garage? But whose?
He threw off the covers. He was naked except for his black boxer briefs. His jeans and T-shirt lay neatly folded beside his leather jacket on the sofa in front of the big screen. His phone sat on the table beside the bed.
Who had put the clean bandage on his thigh? Nothing about the room gave evidence to the owner of the house. Or whom he might have slept with. Nix that. As messed up as he'd been, equipment failure was highly likely.
He found a pair of sweats next to his bloodstained jeans and tugged them on. They were so loose, he had to tighten the inner drawstring. His stomached growled. Hell, he hadn't finished the super-sized burger at the Trident.
Excerpted from Sand and Sin by Dani Jace. Copyright © 2015 Dani Jace. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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