Trouble on Tap(10)

By: Avery Flynn

He looked down and chuckled, the move exposing the scarred left side of his face to the light. “I saw less mud during two government-paid vacations in Kandahar than on you right now.” He ruffled the dog’s fur.

That self-effacing humor sent her right back to high school. It was one of the first things that had drawn her to him. While the other boys bragged or teased or tried to out-gross each other, Mateo had been cool, confident and at ease with the world. He’d been so focused on accomplishing his mission of joining the Marines and become a recon Marine, the baddest of the bad, that the rest of that cocky-teenage-boy bullshit hadn’t seemed to register with him.

What mattered to him now? She wished like hell she knew.

Mateo gave one last tug to the towline, triple checking its security. Old habits, unlike favorite T-shirts, didn’t wear out with time.

The line didn’t give. Not that he expected it to, but a man like him didn’t leave things to chance or things went FUBAR oil-slick fast. A well-timed phantom twinge from his mangled ear reminded him of just how bad the clusterfuck could get. And he was one of the lucky ones.

The dog whined, high-pitched and hopeful, pulling Mateo’s focus away from the past and back into the rainy, muddy present. Excited energy had the dog quivering, but the mutt didn’t even so much as move a single paw forward.

“What’s got you so worked up?” He patted the dog on the head and glanced up the hill, scanning for what captured the dog’s attention. That’s when he saw her.

Olivia stood just inside the headlight’s reach. Tall even in rain boots, she had Jessica Rabbit’s curves and full lips that made him wish he was a tube of ChapStick. Fuck, the number of times he’d been tormented by memories of her that had followed him across the globe with every Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition and Victoria’s Secret catalog that managed to find its way to whatever hellhole he was in… Getting hot and bothered over her was the last thing he needed. He’d had his chance and he’d run hell-bent for leather in the opposite direction. There was no going back, especially now, when he looked and felt like a dented can of refried beans months past the expiration date

The dog whined, his tail thunking against Mateo’s calf. No surprise. Man or animal, everyone seemed to want Olivia Sweet.

Lucky him, he wasn’t just another sad sap looking to get in a model’s pants. “I told you not to come down here.”

She smirked as she pigeon-stepped down the last few yards to his side. “People tell me a lot of things.”

“And you never listen.” The explosion had fucked with his vision temporarily and his hearing permanently, but not his sense of smell. Right about now, when her flowery scent mixed with the spring rain and warm earth, he wished like hell it had.

“Look, Mateo.” She shoved her hands deep into her purple rain jacket’s pockets and raised her chin, as if her posturing could cancel out the slight tremor in her husky voice. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” His scar throbbed. He could take the way people’s eyes slid away, the nervous chatter and the avoidance. But the pity he saw in her blue eyes? It fucking unmanned him.

“My reaction.” Her gaze dropped for a second before returning to lock with his. “I was an asshole.”

No excuses. No denial. He shifted his stance, annoyed with the twinge of his conscience.

“Forget it.” He shrugged. “Do you really think I give a fuck what people think?”

Her long fingers grazed his soaked T-shirt over his biceps. A bolt of lightning could have struck the tip of his steel-toe boots and it wouldn’t have jolted him any more than that single touch. How long had it been since a woman had done that? Used to be he couldn’t grab a beer without a long-legged beauty saddling up to him at the bar. Now? Everything was different.

Bitterness ate away at the back of his throat and his pulse jacked up. The last time he went to a bar, he hadn’t even gotten a second glance after the wide-eyed shock of the first one.

Olivia squeezed his arm, softly. “I know what it’s like—”

“To have half your face blown off and everyone else in your team blown to bits because you failed to follow standard operating procedure? Because you just couldn’t believe that the enemy would use a four-year-old child as a trigger to set off a roadside bomb?” Cold and deadly, the words spilled out and he shook off her hand. “You, Miss Prance-Around-In-A-Bikini-For-A-Living, know what that’s like?”

He expected her to turn tail and run. That’s what a normal person would have done. But she didn’t. She didn’t even flinch. Figured. She was a Sweet, after all.

“No, I don’t.”

“Then don’t bother with the touchy-feely shit. Go back inside.” And away from him before he said anything else he shouldn’t.

She locked her jaw and crossed her arms. “I’m staying.”

Did the woman want to make what was left of his head pop off? “Why?”

“Because I have to.” Her gaze dropped to the dog, who promptly starting wagging his tail so hard his whole butt swayed.

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