My family’s ties to a certain set of crime lords are more tangled and volatile than the wires in an IED. They’ve called on me to disarm a situation ready to explode, but in spite of all my training, I’m not sure any of us are getting out of this unscathed.
That’s especially true when I find out the black-ops mission I’ve signed up for is commanded by none other than Sadie Watts, the girl who left me in the dust so many years ago I should be over it. But I’m not, and seeing her again, especially in such close quarters, is a distraction I can’t afford.
I know what I’m out here fighting for—my brothers; my sister; the USA—but as we close in on our target, I start to wonder if it’s not her I’m fighting for too.
“Fire in the hole, boys and girls!” I saunter back from the bar to the tables of hooting EOD techs, carrying a fresh bottle of tequila. Our group of two women, counting me, and four men are all in various states of celebratory oblivion. We’re the last patrons in this cozy Florida strip club, and the remaining dancers have begun to gravitate toward us, looking for all the world like they’re stalking prey.
I make a circuit around the table, refilling shot glasses. Sinner shakes his head, tilting his chin at his Diet Coke. He’s being a good boy for once, letting his buddy purge some demons, so I give him a pass.
“Come on, Saint Marco, that means you too. Bottoms up, Sasquatch.”
Few men ever surprise me, but in the span of twenty-four hours, I’ve had a big enough share of surprises from men to last the rest of my life. Maybe it’s better that I prefer women. This is the first time I’ve ever seen Marco Santos in a mood, for one thing. Something crawled up his ass, and he’s not his usual sunny self; he just sits there nursing a drink and glaring at the flatscreen over the bar.
The other surprise came from my dad seconds after I exited the plane from Afghanistan. His news couldn’t have come with better timing, but my friends don’t know I’m celebrating for a different reason than they are.
We’ve all completed our most recent tour as Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians—EOD for short. Everyone’s thoughts are on what happens next, since we’re all at the end of our current contracts.
Saint Marco’s large frame dwarfs the lounge chair he sits in, looking like he lives in that black cotton T-shirt and comfortable-looking jeans that fit like a glove around his hard, thick thighs. Yeah, I prefer women, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a man built like that. I just wish I could figure out how to get through to him tonight.
Santos ignores me when I prod him with the tequila bottle, and not even the pole-dancing beauties can tear his attention from whatever’s on that TV. Down time affects us all differently, so maybe he’s just tuning us out, dwelling on his own “what next”, but I have a feeling it’s more than that.
I’m pretty sure most of my friends will stick with EOD in some fashion. We’re all adrenaline junkies, and there are few better options out there for us to get our fix. My dream has always been to follow in my dad’s footsteps and join the SEALs, but until this year, it wasn’t an option for women. Now that it is, nothing’s going to stop me.
I’ll let the others know sooner or later, but right now I just want to bask in all the joy. And the tequila.
They’re none the worse for wear, as long as you ignore their rapid decline into inebriation, no thanks to me. The drunker the men are, the easier they are to tease. My methods aren’t like the other women’s. I’m like one of the boys, but being five-foot-nothing, I like to take every opportunity to assert the upper hand, just in case they ever forget.
I love this part of being with my fellow techs. The part where we get to stop being warriors and become human again. Mace, the other woman on the team, is in her best club attire, but only a couple of the men have put much effort into their appearance. I love how I can never guess who might show up in Dockers and a Polo and who might come out dressed in ripped jeans and an Ed Hardy shirt. Santos is the only one who didn’t surprise me on that count.
“Hey, Sinner…” I nudge the only slightly smaller blond man sitting beside Santos, looking sleek in a striped button-down and slacks. “What gives with Santos?”
Jake Hearn laughs, white teeth shining. Boys shouldn’t be allowed to be as pretty as these two—Santos with his all-seeing eyes and the scars that give him exactly the right patina of dangerous, and Hearn with that boy-next-door, clean-cut look, despite a mouth that can do and say very dirty things.
I’ve only been privy to his verbal skills, but Mace has had firsthand experience with the other part, as have enough women to earn him that nickname. When Hearn and I compared notes on technique, it became clear he knows his way around a pussy as well as I do.
Hearn gestures at the flatscreen. “His ex is on TV. Maybe we should buy him a lap dance to help him forget.” His eyes twinkle.
“No thanks. And she’s not my ex. She’s just a girl I used to know in LA,” Santos says.
“Ah, so it speaks,” I tease. “I wasn’t sure if gorillas could put together sentences.” I glance at the TV, which is focused on a celebrity who’s evidently gotten herself into some sex tape scandal. I do a double-take when I recognize her.
“Wow, that’s Tasha Jennings, the pinup from that hot little sketch you had the day I joined the squad. You used to date her for real?” I ask, ribbing Santos with my elbow. “I always thought she was just your personal spank fantasy.”
“Our paths crossed when we were teens, that’s all. I made that sketch to remind myself of…you know what? That part’s none of your business, Watts. All you need to know is that she’s nothing like how the media portrays her. It pisses me off how they think they can get away with that. That some asshole probably exploited her privacy for money.”
Hearn eyes our friend skeptically. “Dude, you need to blow off some steam. She probably has lawyers who are going to rip whoever did that a new asshole.”
Santos scowls back. “That doesn’t excuse what he did.”
My, my, this is out of the ordinary. Mr. Perpetual Sunshine actually has a moody side, and it’s over a woman’s honor no less. And here I thought I knew everything about him after three years of missions together. We all know each other just a little too well by this point, so it’s always fun to learn something new.
“How is having a beautiful, mostly naked woman rubbing on me who I’m not allowed to touch going to help me do that? I’m fine with watching. It’s relaxing enough. Give me that bottle, Rocket.”
“Oh, wow, he said my name! We’re making progress now.” I nudge Hearn’s side. “Okay, fine,” I say to Santos, relinquishing the tequila to him. When he takes his shot, I pull my chair up to the small bistro table the three of us are sharing and stick my elbow in the middle, hand raised, palm open. “Since you’re the hands-on type, I can work with that. Gimme your hand.”
Santos’ sharp, gray gaze goes from my hand to my eyes, his brow furrowing. “What for?”
“I’ll make you a bet. Arm wrestle me. If I win, I buy you a private dance with the girl of my choosing.”
His eyebrows ease up minutely and his mouth relaxes. And ooh, was that a twitch there at the corner? Is the sunny Marco Santos about to re-emerge? Hell yeah.
He sits forward and his lips twitch again, like his sense of humor was buried alive and is slowly digging its way back to the surface. I’ve come to love that sense of humor over the past three years—dry and quick, especially in the face of imminent danger, which describes the majority of our careers. But then experiences like we’ve had either require you laugh them off or shoot yourself.
I’m suddenly a little sad that it might all be ending. This might be the last time we raise hell like this together after the call I got.
“And what if I win, sweetheart?”
His rumble of interest makes my own eyebrows shoot up. He doesn’t call me Rocket, the nickname everyone uses, and goes one better than simply saying my real name. He doesn’t even call me “baby girl”—the term of endearment he likes to use for Mace—but sweetheart, said in a low, deep voice that sends a tingle straight between my thighs and briefly makes me question my opinion of men, or at least my opinion of him.
“What if I want a private dance from you?”
Sinner chokes on his drink. I glance at him, amused at his spluttering before he wipes his mouth with a napkin. “This is Watts you’re asking, man. No offense, Watts, you’re gorgeous. I’d do you in a heartbeat, but you’re about as feminine as a hand grenade.”
I narrow my eyes. “First, that’s only if he wins, and second, I’ve got moves you haven’t seen.” To Santos, I say, “You still gotta beat me, Sasquatch.”
Mace, Brett, and Jones shift their attention to our table, and a couple of the strippers come and lean against the cushioned divider behind them. One familiar fair-skinned girl with long, dark hair pulled back in a sleek ponytail says, “I volunteer when you win, Sadie. On me.”
There’s my girl. I texted Katrina that I was home hours ago, but wasn’t sure if she was at work today. It’s a challenge not to divert my entire attention to her, but I’m determined to pull Santos out of his foul mood.
“Wait a sec. For him or for me? Should I be jealous?”
“I could ask you the same question.” The mocking humor in Kat’s voice makes me smile. The spark hasn’t died, and Kat’s familiar languid posture and the lowering of her lashes when our gazes meet confirms it still goes both ways.
“Right. Well, I’m conflicted now, but I don’t think I can let you win, Sasquatch.”
“We’ll see about that.” Santos stands and flexes his shoulders, rolling them back, then forward, then cracking his neck. The fabric of his shirt leaves little to the imagination, and the hints of ink around one of his thick biceps only serve to enhance how seriously the man takes his PT. But when our “work” suit weighs close to a hundred pounds, you can’t exactly slack off. Once done with the warmup, he cracks his knuckles and sits back down.
“Toast first.” I hold out a full shot to him, and we clink glasses and drink—our final handshake before the standoff.
His palm is dry and very warm against mine, his touch gentle until he grips tighter and winks at me. Katrina stands up and holds her hands over both of ours for the countdown.
“Now it’s on,” I say while he strains against me, the tight muscles of his entire arm flexing. “Big guys don’t always get to win, you know.”
I give him a shit-eating grin when his jaw flexes under the strain of his gritted teeth. I draw it out just a little bit longer for his benefit, then smack his fist to the table.
“Christ!” He sits back in his chair, eyes wide with disbelief like someone just stole his last pair of dry socks. His expression clouds and he sits forward again abruptly, pours another shot, and drinks it. “Best two outta three. Come on, Watts.” He plunks his elbow in the center of the table and waggles his fingers.
Katrina laughs. “I should probably feel insulted, but this is too entertaining.”
Santos glances sidelong at Katrina. “It’s nothing personal.” His eyes settle back on me. “It is personal with you, though. You’ve been riding me for too long with the nicknames. I’m done with it. I’m kicking your ass and you’re shutting up with the primate talk, all right?”
I draw back in mock offense. “Well, I guess I hit a nerve. All right, but I’m not making any promises.”
I don’t linger on this round, nailing his knuckles to the table in a matter of seconds. Cheers and groans go up around us, and money changes hands. I sit back with my hands clasped behind my head, staring at him smugly. He glares at me and stands. With an unexpected show of chivalry, he reaches out a hand to Katrina, who takes it and stands while shooting me an impressed glance.
I watch my girlfriend lead Santos away, briefly and irrationally uncertain where my sudden pang of jealousy springs from. Katrina’s poly so she and I have never been exclusive, and this is part of her job, for Christ’s sake. But when Santos rests his large hand against her lower back, my own skin tingles.
“One for the road?” Hearn asks, holding the bottle of tequila up.