Pleasing Her SEAL
Ladies, it’s Saturday and I’m surrounded by honeymooners. This is one step up from my usual weekend wedding gig, where my people options are usually the geriatric crowd, the toddler dancing crowd (always good for a much-needed cardio burst and the cutest, stickiest kisses), or the drunken groomsman crowd (good for equally enthusiastic but much damper kisses—ewww). I counted not one, not two, but three couples wrapped around each other by the pool. I have dubbed them the Octopi because they seem to have eight hands each and at least seven of them are engaged in activities best left to the bedroom or a soft porn channel. Go, Octopi! Speaking of that, watching the Octopi procreate underscores my own single state. You’ve found The One and you’re hearing wedding bells, or you wouldn’t be visiting this blog. Any tips for where to look for a good guy? Because this wedding blogger is feeling lonely in paradise.
—MADDIE, Kiss and Tulle
“Hooyah, hooyah, hooyah, hey.” US Navy SEAL Mason Black fist bumped his knuckles with Levi Brandon’s. He didn’t have far to reach since both men were currently sharing the same palm tree backrest and catching their breaths after completing their mission.
“Today’s gonna be another easy day,” Levi automatically finished the chant. The words took Mason back to BUD/S training when making the SEALs team had still been seven weeks of hell away. Operating on four hours of sleep or less a night, he’d worked with his teammates to carry their Zodiac over their heads through the pounding surf, crawled through mud flats, and made best friends with a three-hundred-pound log that was their instructors’ idea of exercise equipment. Good times.
Levi grinned like he hadn’t just been embroiled in a firefight. “I’m hoping there’s a beer in my future.”
The current op wasn’t so bad and beat the hell out of completing the O course at BUD/S. Not only had the rain finally stopped, which went in the plus column, but one hell of a tropical sunrise lit up the horizon. Since he was waiting for the Zodiacs from the US Navy cruiser anchored just offshore, Mason had every reason to stare at the horizon. His team was minutes away from successfully finishing their undercover op on Fantasy Island.
One more checkmark in the “Mission Complete” column.
If he’d been a paperwork-and-spreadsheet kind of guy. Which he wasn’t.
Nope, he mused to himself as he went to work with a SIG Sauer and a sniper rifle. Rather than riding the commuter train, he’d be extracted from the island by Black Hawk and flown to the nearest US military base to debrief. And instead of writing quarterly reports or coding software, he’d helped lead the hostile extraction of a South American drug lord who’d made the mistake of booking a luxury vacation for himself and his new girlfriend on Fantasy Island.
Mason’s SEAL team had moved in early, posing as resort staff, and intercepted the guy as soon as he’d stepped foot on the island. Pretending to be a gourmet chef had actually been fun. Poolside ceviche lessons were a nice change of pace from dodging bullets, and he genuinely liked cooking. The female students weren’t bad-looking, either.
SEAL Team Sigma had established an undercover camp on Fantasy Island’s undeveloped side. Unlike the resort digs, their camp was basic. A few hammocks, a couple of tents, and enough hardware and weaponry to take over a small country. They could be packed and wheels up in two hours, and that portability alone made the place more perfect than a country club. Better yet, the rugged terrain all but guaranteed that no resort guest would stumble across the SEALs.
The faint sound of Zodiacs cutting across the lagoon announced that it was showtime. Diego Marcos, the captured drug lord, started cursing up a storm behind his duct-tape gag and pulling at his zip-tied wrists. The scumbag wasn’t going to quit until he was in US custody aboard the Navy vessel cruising offshore and maybe not even then. Not Mason’s problem. The girlfriend, however, looked peaked and more than a little teary, so Mason helped her to a seat on the sand with a hand under her elbow.
She might or might not know squat about her beau’s drug-running activities, but she’d come here with him and now she was tarred with the same brush. Marcos shot her a look, not quite managing to mask his concern. Mason got that. Separating your personal life from your professional life was hard.
Mason didn’t like the worry in her eyes, either, so when she stared up at him, he broke out his Spanish for Dummies. “No te preocupes que vas a estar bien.”
The way her eyes welled up at his words wasn’t a good sign. Or maybe she’d just had enough. Someone, somewhere was going to miss her. That unknown someone would want to yell at her for her bad choice in men and then maybe add an I told you so. He could imagine all too easily how he’d feel if she was one of his sisters or his cousins, seven females he loved more than life itself and who’d managed, collectively, to date every badass bad guy out there. Some of them more than once.
He tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear and fell back. He couldn’t let her go, and he couldn’t give her a do-over. So the best thing was to get out of her personal space.
“Softie,” Levi mouthed.
Yeah, but he was also the softie in charge at the moment. Their team leader, Gray Jackson, was supervising the medevac of an injured team member, so Mason had command.
Something flashed at his nine o’clock. Light on glass, like a camera lens. Typical. Right when the mission wrapped and they were all free to ride off into the sunset, everything went FUBAR. Lifting his binoculars, he zoomed in and, damn, it was the hot chick who’d attended the cooking lessons. She’d liked his ceviche. He’d liked…her.
She was gorgeous, with a smile that lit her up from the inside out, radiant red hair bouncing around her shoulders. During the class, she’d worn a polka-dot sundress with tiny straps crisscrossing her shoulders and his new mission had become finding a way to nudge those thin ribbons down her shoulders and get to know her. Biblically.
He nudged Levi with the toe of his boot. “We’ve got company.”
“Tell me it’s the Budweiser truck.”
“We’re on an island, dumbass.”
“Don’t be so literal.” Levi saluted him with his middle finger. “And let a man dream. Where’s our hotspot?”
“Up on the hill. Nine o’clock. We’ve got a resort guest out and about.”
Levi snatched the glasses away from him and examined the hillside. “You’re not wrong,” he said. “Jogger?”
“No such luck. That’s Madeline Holmes. She’s a wedding blogger and, right now, she’s snapping pictures of the lagoon.”
She was also his personal eye candy, her happy-go-lucky smile drawing his attention every time he was near her. And if he’d taken advantage of this island op to put himself in her vicinity as often as possible, that was need-to-know information.
“And in another ten, our pickup crew.” Levi cursed. “Options?”
Their mission was already FUBAR in some respects: Remy taking a bullet to the abdomen and being airlifted to a hospital, Gray bleeding emotionally because he’d taken a header for the visiting doctor who’d flown out with the injured SEAL. Pick one. Hell, pick both. This was why an insertion into civilian space spelled danger. Everything was easier in the jungle. Something moved, you shot it. Not, of course, that he wanted to shoot the woman.
“What are the odds she’s taking selfies?” Levi asked.
Zero to none. A familiar calm descended. His pretty redhead was a threat to his team, so he’d neutralize her. No matter how alive she made him feel, the mission and the team came first. “I’ll take care of it. You hand off our guests here to the Navy boys.”
“Got it.” Levi turned toward the approaching Zodiac. “Try to remember that we’re on a no-kill mission, okay? Plus, she’s friends with Ashley, and you don’t want to piss off Ashley.”
Jesus. Did he look that cranky? Or like the kind of guy who would take out an innocent civilian? He agreed with the warning on Ashley Dixon, though. She was a DEA loaner and honorary member of the SEAL team—and she could be mean as hell if you riled her up. Moving rapidly, he stripped off his more obvious weapons and dropped them on the sand. Since he was supposed to be undercover, working on the down low, he couldn’t show up toting forty pounds of lethal hardware.
Mornings sucked. Predawn alarms sucked even more because no one, ever, had accused Madeline Holmes of being a morning person. Still, she’d given it a shot, scrambling up the hill even as she willed the sunrise to hold off. Hitting the snooze button the third time had been a mistake.
In order to make the sunrise, she’d rolled out of bed and settled for a tank top, shorts and sneakers. Usually, she put some thought into her clothes. Okay. Lots of thought. Clothing was like armor. Pretty armor. Instead of rocking her suitcase full of brand-new vacation wear, however, she was climbing Mount Everest. She hadn’t shaved her legs or brushed her hair and she stank of eau de bug spray.
As the air lightened around her, she pushed harder because the sun was coming up fast and, color her romantic, but she wanted to catch the first rays of dawn, the colors exploding over the edge of the horizon. This was probably her one and only chance to visit a place like Fantasy Island, so every moment needed to count—and the pictures would be awesome blog material. And the more footage she got, the better. Everything rode on this trip.
She was lucky to be here, even if she’d come alone. The Fantasy Island marketing team had reached out to her about advertising on her blog and, ka-ching, she’d found herself here on an all-expenses-paid vacation. Now she had to earn her keep or her chance at big-time success would go poof.
The place was paradise, so how hard could it be to talk the island up on her blog? The only thing missing was the naked hot guy. Or loincloth-wearing hot guy. She preferred a man of mystery to a letting-it-all-hang-out-in-the-breeze guy. If she’d understood the island’s advertising correctly, she might be able to have her choice of either. Or both.
Whatever she wanted.
Fantasy Island advertised itself as an idyllic slice of paradise located on the Caribbean Sea—the perfect place for a destination wedding or honeymoon. The elegant type on the resort brochure promised barefoot luxury, discreet hedonism and complete wish fulfillment. Maddie’s job was to translate those naughty promises into sexy web copy that would drive traffic to her blog and fill her bank account with much-needed advertising dollars.
The summit beckoned and she stepped out into a small clearing overlooking the ocean.
“I need to work out more.” At least her asthma hadn’t kicked in. After a quick check of the camera that she’d set up yesterday to do time-lapse photography, she unwrapped her breakfast. She had a purloined croissant and a mocha, which was the perfect sunrise-watching food. While she munched and she shot, the air lightened around her, the birds and the howler monkeys competing to see who could make the most raucous noise. Being awake this early was…almost okay.
The noise of a boat coming in hard and fast on the quiet side of the island was a surprise. With her camera lens, she zoomed in on a pair of black rubber dinghies bouncing over the lagoon’s calm surface. Huh. She squinted, trying to make out the details. Not only did the guys riding the Zodiac look mean, but they were toting a small arsenal, too.
“Good view?” At the sound of the deep male voice behind her, Maddie flinched, arms and legs jerking in shock. Her camera flew forward as she scrambled backward. As adrenaline surged through her, she sucked in air—happy place, happy place—but her lungs betrayed her anyhow, her airway closing up tight. It felt like an elephant had parked its ass on her chest.
Strong male fingers fastened around her wrist. Panicked, she grabbed her croissant and lobbed it at the guy, followed by her coffee. He cursed and dodged.
“It’s not a good day to jump without a chute.” He tugged her away from the edge of the lookout, and she got her first good look at him. Not a stranger. Okay, then. Her heart banged hard against her rib cage, pummeling her out-of-air lungs, before settling back into a more normal rhythm. Mason. Mason I-Can’t-Be-Bothered-To-Tell-You-My-Last-Name-But-I’m-A-Stud. He led the cooking classes by the pool. She’d written him off as good-looking but aloof, not certain if she’d spotted a spark of potential interest in his dark eyes. Wishful thinking or dating potential—it was probably a moot point now, since she’d just pegged him with her mocha, followed by her croissant. Usually she couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, but she’d scored a bull’s-eye on the front of his T-shirt.
She snuck a peek at him. He didn’t seem pissed off. On the contrary, he simply rocked back on his haunches, hands held out in front of him. I come in peace, she thought, fortunately too out of breath to giggle. The side of his shirt sported a dark stain from her coffee. Oh goody. She’d actually scalded him. Way to make an impression on a poor, innocent guy. This was why her dating life sucked.
She tried to wheeze out an apology, but he shook his head.
“Let’s get you breathing.”
She had to agree with his priorities. Plus, if he wanted her breathing, he clearly hadn’t morphed from resort chef to serial killer, so he had some other reason for being up here. Who knew? Maybe he was a secret sunrise aficionado. With a grimace, she dumped her bag upside down on the ground, looking for the inhaler hiding somewhere in the mountain of stuff she carted around. Mason made a choked sound, but she ignored him. So she had a lot of stuff. Preparation was the key to surviving, right? Plus, she really, really hated cleaning out her bag. Mason rifled through the contents, his fingers skimming over her secret chocolate stash, mini samples from her Birchbox subscription, three pairs of sunglasses, a paperback and a clear plastic pouch of emergency tampons. Since he didn’t look like he wanted to run back down the hill screaming, she concentrated on breathing.
“Got it.” Uncapping her inhaler, he handed it to her.
Dark brown eyes watched her as she primed the device and shoved it into her mouth. “I scared you.”
“You think?” The albuterol went to work, her lungs opening up like her puffer was a magic wand and she’d just chanted open sesame. She hated having to rely on the device, but sometimes she couldn’t talk herself out of panicking.
“That wasn’t my intention.” The look on his face was part chagrin, part repentance. Worked for her.
“I’ll put a bell around your neck.” Where had he learned to move so quietly?
“Why don’t we start over?” He stuck out a hand. A big, masculine, slightly muddy hand. She probably shouldn’t want to seize his fingers like a lifeline. “I’m Mason Black.”
“I know who you are.” Or mostly. The last name was new information.
Belatedly, she shoved her hand into his. Good Lord, the man had her acting like she was fifteen. Not that she’d mind having her fifteen-year-old body back, but that year in high school had been the Year of Brody. Brody had sat next to her in her chemistry class, his mere presence driving textbooks straight out of her mind and reducing her to a stammering, drooling idiot. He’d made her tingle and flush, transforming chemistry class into both her favorite and her worst period of the day.
Mason Black was even more devastating. And, like her chemistry crush, she wasn’t entirely positive he knew her name. After all, he’d just introduced himself to her like they were total strangers and she hadn’t ogled his body while he taught Fantasy Island’s guests to make ceviche. Which she totally had.
She was also still holding his hand.
Oops. Letting go, she took a step back.
“I’m Maddie Holmes.”
“Uh-huh.” He cleared his throat. “I owe you an apology.”
She leaned toward him before she could stop herself. “Okay.”
Did she still sound breathless? Maybe she could blame her asthma. He examined the ground and her gaze followed his. Right. Her camera…and her breakfast. Her breakfast was beyond repair—even she wasn’t going to eat a chocolate croissant that had bounced off Hot Chef’s chest and hit the jungle floor—but her camera was a different story. He picked it up, turning it over in his hands, and then handed it to her.
“The first apology is for scaring you. It wasn’t intentional.” His lips curved up in a grin. “And the second apology is for your camera. And your croissant.” She liked the slow way he smiled at her. It made her feel all melty, like the insides of her croissant.
“It was chocolate,” she pointed out. “One apology may not be sufficient.”
“Call me crazy, but aren’t cameras a bit more expensive than breakfast pastries?”
“I have more than one camera,” she explained. “But at the moment, I’m completely croissant-less.”
“I make a mean chocolate chip pancake,” he offered, surprising her. With that brawny body, she’d assumed he was an oat bran and protein powder kind of guy. “I could make you a replacement.”
Somehow, she didn’t think his pancakes would take second place. Nope. Just like his smile, she had a bad feeling his pancakes would be addictive. He was a big, scary-looking guy offering homemade breakfast. Talk about checking all the right boxes.
“You cook,” she blurted out, when the silence stretched on too long and then wanted to smack herself. Duh. Obviously, he cooked. He was a chef at the resort, even if he wore camo pants, a black T-shirt and combat boots, and looked more like a badass than a chef.
“Yeah,” he agreed, rocking back on his heels to survey her, presumably for further damage. “I do. Really well, although I’m hearing a no on my offer.”
Only because she was biting her lip. She wanted to scream yes, please and not just for his pancakes.
“That’s not what chefs wear.” She flicked a finger up and down, indicating his clothes.
He grinned. “I’m not in the kitchen right now, sweetheart. I’m allowed to be out of uniform.”
And now she was thinking about him naked.
“I’m playing paintball with some of the guys,” he continued.
He shrugged. “You all like to eat. I have a job to do most of the time.”
“You don’t have any paint on your shirt.” Although if his alleged teammates had hit him on the butt, she’d be happy to check out that portion of his anatomy too.
He sighed. “That’s because I’m good.”
Again…maybe. Not that he had any reason to lie to her about paintball, but she had a suspicious nature. She tried to peer over his shoulder, but it was roughly the size of a small tree and offered plenty of places for a gal to dig in. His black T-shirt clung to him in all the right places and black and green paint streaked his face. The color drew attention to the strong line of his jaw and a really great pair of brown eyes.
She was staring.
“I saw boats.” She pointed to the lagoon over his shoulder. “Two of those black inflatable dinghy things.”
He turned around, crossing his arms over his broad chest. That move pulled the shirt tight. Since she was an equal opportunity kind of gal, she checked out his ass, too. Which was tight and firm, unlike hers. She definitely needed to take up paintball.
He shrugged and pointed to the dinghy-less, bad-guy-less lagoon. “There’s no one there now.”
“But there was.” She hated mysteries.
“It could be the Belizean police doing a routine drug check. They patrol up and down the coastline, and we’re only a few miles offshore.”
That sounded feasible. On her last visit to Cancun, back when she’d had vacation time, benefits and a 9-to-5 job, she’d spotted AK-47-toting Mexican police patrolling the beaches. The hotel had assured her that was standard operating procedure, although she’d almost choked on her margarita the first time she’d spotted the patrols. She stared at the camera in her hands.
“I have photos,” she said.
“I didn’t say I didn’t believe you,” he pointed out. “But I’m happy to look at anything you want to show me.”
That almost sounded like a double entendre, but he said the words with a straight face, making it impossible to be sure. Instead, she focused on her camera and—damn it—its trip to the ground hadn’t done it any favors.
“The memory card’s gone. It must have popped out when I dropped the camera.”
And flown over the edge, she decided a few minutes later, on its way down, down, down for a tropical swim. Mason helped her look, but the card was nowhere to be found. Of course, since she was searching for a teeny piece of plastic in the great outdoors, her odds hadn’t been high to start with.
“I’m thinking I owe you more than a short stack,” he said with a grimace. “Now you’ve lost your pictures, too.”
This was where being prepared came in handy. “Not really. I had the camera set up to do time-lapse and all the shots should have been transferred to my laptop if the Wi-Fi isn’t moving on island time.”
“Good to know,” he muttered, his eyes on the camera in her hands. “What were you shooting?”
“Not what you were shooting.” When he gave her a lopsided grin, she told him the truth. “Sunrise pictures. Romantic stuff for my wedding blog. Brides will love having their pictures taken up here. I’m shadowing a wedding later this week, and the bride already picked out this spot for her photos. They’re a gorgeous couple.”
She whipped open her planner and flipped to the section where she’d jotted down her notes for the beach wedding. There were certain shots she definitely wanted to make sure she captured, and she did better with a list.
“This is my bride and groom. He’s a hottie. My blog readers will love him.”
Mason took the groom’s picture from her. “This is your guy?”
“Uh-huh.” She’d been in correspondence with Julieta, the bride, more than once before she’d arrived. The Mrs.-Guzman-to-be was a pretty blonde, while her groom had the Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome part down. He rocked a white linen suit in the photo Julieta had sent to give Maddie an idea of what they’d be wearing and, if he showed up looking like that, her photos would be outstanding. “What do you think?”
Mason snorted. “Not my type, sweetheart.”
She stuck her tongue out at him. “Well, Mr. Guzman clearly appeals to the future Mrs. Guzman, and that’s all that counts.”
“They here on the island already?” He returned the photo and she stuck it back in her planner.
“Not yet.” Which was both surprising and not. “Julieta’s dress is here—that’s the bride-to-be—but I haven’t actually seen them check in yet. Mr. Guzman runs some kind of import-export business and has stuff come up at the last minute all the time. Maybe he had a business thing. It must be nice to have a private plane and go where you want, when you want.”
“Maybe.” Mason gestured at her tripod. “You done here? Want a hand bringing this back to your villa?”
“A hand down the hill would be great,” she said, still thinking about her missing bride and groom. She’d been counting on shooting their wedding for her blog; if they were no-shows, she’d need to make alternative arrangements. “Maybe I’ll see if his brother has arrived yet. Ask him if Mr. Guzman’s plans have changed.”
Mason started breaking down her tripod. “He’s bringing family to his wedding?”
She shrugged. “Just his brother Santiago, according to Julieta. He was planning to get to the island a few days before her, so she was hoping to pawn some of the prewedding tasks off on him. He should have arrived yesterday or today.”
She let him help her fold up the tripod and then they headed toward the path that led back to the resort. Since the sun had risen, the lighting was no longer ideal, and she now had a date with her bed. A date that would be even better if Mason followed her home. No. He wasn’t a stray puppy. She didn’t get to bring him home.
He strode ahead of her, so she followed along, admiring the way his cargo pants bunched over his butt as he walked. What he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him—and she’d definitely take a rain check on those pancakes.