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Discovery Island came with its own resident Adonis. That particular plus had definitely not been in the travel brochures Laurel, Mia Brandt's cousin and the bride-to-be, had waved enthusiastically when proposing a four day bachelorette cruise from San Francisco to Cabo San Lucas. The woman was a travel agent; she should have known the man candy would be even more of a draw than discounted cabins.
Fifty yards away from Mia's perch in the beachside bar, the hottie masterfully coaxed a boat motor to life while she stared. He might have been working in the shallow water with his back to Mia's group, but the sheer size and power of him demanded a second look, as did the effortless way he dominated his surroundings. In a firefight, she would have taken him out first, because everything about him screamed trouble.
As soon as the hostess had shown Mia to her seat, she'd spotted him at two o'clock. Cataloging her surroundings was second nature, the end result of two tours of duty in Afghanistan. After her time in the sandbox, she'd marked her exits and searched for anything out of the ordinary. Not that she recognized ordinary anymore, but she'd made it her personal goal to rediscover that quality, and she'd set herself a deadline of Christmas. With only three months remaining to accomplish her particular mission, scoping out potential datesrather than potential hostilesover bad margaritas had seemed an excellent step in the right direction. The normal direction.
This guy was worth a second look for many reasons, although the only threat he posed right now was to her libido. An ancient gray T-shirt stretched tightly over his shoulders as he wielded his wrench, clearly still dissatisfied with the boat's performance despite the motor's obedient purr. He'd rolled up his faded jeans, the worn denim cupping his butt in the best possible way as he bent over, fiddling with some new mechanical bit. His dark hair was buzzed short with military precision, and his forearms were a rich, sun-browned color. When he pulled a screwdriver out of the toolbox beside him, Mia's group of gals heaved a collective sigh.
Hooyah. Definitely spectacular.
"You think he's single?" One of the bridesmaids leaned into Mia, her attention firmly fixed on the hottie working the engine. Laurel had assembled a bridal party from all walks of life. In addition to Mia, she'd invited two girlfriends from college, her husband-to-be's baby sister, a gal from her office and a woman she'd met on a cruise to Jamaica. Two Jenns, an Olivia, a Lily and a Chloe. Mia's other mission was keeping the names straight.
The guy's dating status, however, wasn't the actual issue. She shifted backshe still didn't like casual touchingand plucked the veil off her head. Her cousin had brought faux bridal veils for everyone, but there was only so far Mia would go for family. Being a former aviation pilot and officer in the US Army and only six months back from her final tour, pink tulle far exceeded that distance. Far. "That's not the right question."
The bridesmaidMia was almost certain she was one of the Jennsabsently inhaled her margarita, her gaze never wavering from the man in the boat. "No?"
A guy like him clearly didn't know the meaning of the word no. His T-shirt rode up as he reached over the engine block, revealing a sun-darkened expanse of golden brown skin and the navy blue edge of his boxers. The straight line of his spine just begged to be traced by her fingers. Or her mouth. Her tongue
At ease, soldier.
She'd seen gorgeous men before. Slept with them, too. Just because sailor boy was the sexiest sight she'd laid eyes on in weeks didn't give her hormones license to rampage unchecked. Her ship sailed in hours, and she wasn't looking for quick fun. She also didn't need to leave behind yet another guy who would decide he was done waiting without telling her.
Even now, she could hear her ex's voice as he explained how her last deployment was his license to cheat on her because, honestly, did she expect him to wait forever? Eighteen months hadn't qualified as forever in Mia's book, but then honesty apparently hadn't been part of her ex's vocabulary, either. She wouldn't make that mistake again, and the sailor in the boat had mistake written all over his very sexy self.
Might-be-Jenn slurped, drawing Mia's attention back to the problem at hand. "The question isis he single right now?"
The man braced his legs as he twisted something on the engine block, and one of the other bridesmaids started fanning herself with a stack of bar napkins. Right on cue, a bikini-clad tourist hopped up onto the edge of the boat. The guy's fetching new visitor leaned in and said something to him.
"Scooped." Mia's neighbor polished off the remainder of her margarita. She didn't sound particularly forlorn. "I need another round."
It was hard to imagine needing more tequila and salt, but Mia signaled for the waiter anyhow. Her role on this cruise appeared to be that of designated party planner, probably because she wasn't any good at having fun herself, or so she suspected. Checking the waiter out visually for suspicious bulges and concealed weapons when he came over to take their order for refills was a case in point.
"Is he taken?" Bridesmaid number twoso much for keeping her vow to learn their names before the cruise ship reached international waters tomorrowscooted closer and looked hopefully toward the water's edge.
"We could send him a drink."
"Or bring the drinks ourselves."
"A long, slow screw against the wall." Mia zoned out during the animated discussion of drinks that followed, which was probably why she missed the right turn the conversation took somewhere between wall and Mia. Her name. Five heads swiveled her way. Hell. She must not have blacked out or had a flashback, because no one looked worried.
"What?" she asked Laurel, who was bouncing up and down in her seat. If Mia closed her eyes, she could imagine they were kids again. Laurel, who had always hated her name, had been an only child three years younger than Mia and they'd quickly become inseparable. Since her cousin lived less than a half mile away from Mia's family, there had been plenty of zipping back and forth on their bikes.
Laurel had emailed daily when Mia was deployed, sharing all the small-town news and celebrity gossip. She'd also sent care packages, which had been a mixed blessing, albeit always good for a laugh. Laurel's definition of essentials didn't match Mia's, but they'd agreed on chocolate and Cheetos. The random gag gifts in the box had been another matter, but explained why Mia's unit had the best supply of whoopee cushions in the sandbox
and why Mia was now sporting a hot pink bikini bottom with rhinestones. And a tiara.
Laurel had a devilish sense of humor and a contagious laugh. And since making Laurel happy made Mia happy, a little public humiliation in the wardrobe department was a small price to pay.
Laurel elbowed her. "He's wearing dog tags."
"And so he's military, right? Maybe you know him."
Of course, because the number of soldiers serving Uncle Sam was so small that they were all on a first name basis. In the last six months she'd served in Afghanistan, she hadn't met every serviceman stationed at her base. Many of them, certainly, but not all of them. So the odds of her knowing the guy working on the boat were miniscule. Mia sighed. Sure, she could march over there and introduce herself, but she doubted he'd be interested in a glassful of vodka and gin. Sex, on the other hand, was a definite maybe if he was anything like the soldiers with whom she'd served. Stall.
"I doubt we've crossed paths," she said, fishing an ice cube out of her glass. If she mainlined enough sweet tea, she might not fall asleep tonight, and avoiding the nightmares ranked higher on her list of things to be desired than hot men working on boats. "Afghanistan wasn't that small."
"Go over and ask him to join us," Laurel urged.
Her cousin's impish smile reminded Mia she wasn't the only person here used to giving orders.
"I'm the bride," Laurel reminded her. As if Mia could possibly forget, given the group's collective outfits. "I'm off-limits. Taken." Another round of giggles ensued. "Someone available should go."
It was true. Mia did want to be available. It was part of her whole act normal, feel normal plan. Laurel, on the other hand, was unabashedly girly. She loved glitter and pinkand her husband-to-be, Jack. Laurel was the kind of happy that made others smile. She didn't forget a promise, and she'd waited almost a year for her wedding date to make sure that Mia would be home. In turn, Mia would walk through fire for her baby cousinand up the aisle in the satin monstrosity Laurel had chosen for the bridesmaids.
All of which made walking across the beach to the hottie on the boat a no-brainer.
Since she wasn't drinkingthank you, accidentally detonated concussion grenadeshe'd nominated herself to be in charge of organizing the day's festivitieskind of like a designated tour guide instead of a designated driver. They'd hit the water for some snorkeling and devoured a lunch that had somehow morphed into the current cocktails. Next up was the zip line and ATV tour, followed by a sunset beach walk. While she couldn't guarantee the bridal party's continued good behavior, she could guarantee they slept like babies tonight. Apparently, she could also add procurer of hot men to her mental résumé.
With that thought, she stood up and pointed herself in the direction of sailor boy. If her girls wanted his company, they'd get it. Seeing them happy was a good thing. This was precisely what she'd fought for in Afghanistan, this beautiful, silly happiness. Laurel glowed whenever her fiancé's name came up. They could laugh a little too loudly, drink a little too much, and have far too much fun, unlike the very few Afghani women Mia had met during her tours.
The sun beating down on the beach certainly upped the temperature to Afghanistan-like levels. Moving out without her flip-flops had been a mistake because the sand was scorching hot. As soon as Mia got close, speeding up her incoming to an undignified trot as the soles of her feet cooked, the visiting bikini babe slid off the edge of the boat, landing in the water with a little splash. Sailor boy didn't look up. Not because he didn't notice the other woman's departuresomething about the way he held himself warned her he was aware of everyone and everything around himbut because polite clearly wasn't part of his daily repertoire.
Fine. She wasn't all that civilized herself.
The blonde made a face, her ponytail bobbing as she started hoofing it along the beach. "Good luck with that one," she muttered as she passed Mia.
Oookay. Maybe this was mission impossible. Still, she'd never failed when she'd been out in the field, and all her gals wanted was intel. She padded into the water, grateful for the cool soaking into her burning soles. The little things mattered so much more now.
"I'm not interested." Sailor boy didn't look up from the motor when she approached, a look of fierce concentration creasing his forehead. Having worked on more than one Apache helicopter during her two tours of duty, she knew the repair work wasn't rocket science.
She also knew the mechanic and
Mentally, she ran through every curse word she'd learned. Tag Johnson hadn't changed much in five years. He'd acquired a few more fine lines around the corners of his eyes, possibly from laughing. Or from squinting into the sun since rescue swimmers spent plenty of time out at sea. The white scar on his forearm was as new as the lines, but otherwise he was just as gorgeous and every bit as annoying as he'd been the night she'd picked him up at the Star Bar in San Diego. He was also still out of her league, a military bad boy who was strong, silent, deadly
and always headed out the door.
For a brief second, she considered retreating. Unfortunately, the bridal party was watching her intently, clearly hoping she was about to score on their behalf. Disappointing them would be a shame.
"Funny," she drawled. "You could have fooled me."
Tag's head turned slowly toward her. Mia had hoped for drama. Possibly even his butt planting in the ocean from the surprise of her reappearance. No such luck.
"Sergeant Dominatrix," he drawled back.
"Do You even remember my name?" Mia Brandt smiled at him, baring her teeth. If looks could kill, he'd be a dead man twice over.
Sergeant Dominatrix. Dredging up her old nickname hadn't been nice, but she'd startled him, and the words had slipped out. Okay, metaphorically speaking, she'd knocked him on his ass, because if he'd been making a list of the people he least expected to meet on Discovery Island, she would have topped said list. The last time he'd seen her had been when she'd marched out the door of his hotel room with a mouthy At ease, soldier. He'd been naked. She, on the other hand, had been sporting full dress uniform.
"I remember." His people-naming skills had never been good, but Mia was unforgettable.
"Prove it." She moved silently through the shallow water toward his boat. Those three feet felt like eternity.
"You don't prefer Sergeant Dominatrix to Mia?" he asked innocently.
She treated him to a repeat of the death glare, which he deserved, because it was his fault she was saddled with the nickname, even if she didn't know it. He had no intention of confessing the truth, either. He wasn't stupid.
"Would you?" she asked.
Absolutely not. He'd never been good at taking orders. Mia, on the other hand, excelled at giving them. Their relationship had been doomed from the start. Sweet Jesus, but she hadn't needed him for anything but his guy parts. At the three-drink mark of his Star Bar visit, that had been need enough for him.
are you visiting?" See? He could be polite.
She pointed to a group of women behind her, the same group that had been mainlining cocktails and whooping it up while he worked. Funny. He wouldn't have pegged her for a drinker. Mia liked being in charge far too much to give it up.
Of course, weddings were crazy-making. He had first-hand proof of that. His business partner and best friend was tying the knot in a few months, and his fiancée had pointed out that people made allowances for weddings all the time. At the time, she'd been trying to persuade him to host some kind of stag party. This bridal party wore veils and bikinis, an unusual beach getup meriting a second glance. Or six.
Tag had never considered himself a marrying man, but multiple pink-and-white swimsuit bottoms with bridesmaid tattooed on the butt in rhinestones had him rethinking his position. Fast. The bride wore white, of course, and she was off-limits. The beach bar was the kind of place where the stools were chunks of wood and the glasses sported paper umbrellas and cherries. The waiters encouraged the customers to wiggle their toes in the sand and served the kind of drinks that made his stomach curdle. Mia's ladies must have come in from the cruise ship currently moored in Discovery Island's harbor, as half of them were toting Fiesta Cruise bags stuffed to the gills with beach towels and girly stuff.