SPARKS FLY WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE…
Weary warrior… After eight years as a Marine sniper, war-scarred Reid Everett is back in his native Wyoming. He knows and loves this rugged land, so working for wildlife services to reduce the booming wolf population suits him to a T.
Caring crusader… Wildlife biologist Haley Cooper is desperate to make a difference. Leaving the world of academia behind, she accepts a position as a wolf advocate to protect the animals she loves.
Raw attraction… Their jobs set them on a collision course, but chemistry sparks like wildfire between Reid and Haley. They’ll have to brave some rough territory if they hope to reconcile their polarizing views with a passion that won’t be denied.
Reid considered the blonde who’d brushed him off like a fly from shit less than an hour ago. When he’d paid her cover he hadn’t expected anything in return except maybe a dance, but now she’d positioned herself squarely in his crosshairs.
“So you think you’re a player, eh?” Reid eyed her with renewed speculation, wondering what game she was really playing.
“Only pool,” she answered as if reading his mind. “A better question would be what kind of player are you?” She slid off the table, letting the double entendre hang.
“Guess you’ll just have to find out for yourself. Mind if the lady steps in?” he asked the cluster of marines. The request was purely rhetorical. They all knew he was staking his claim, but he’d still sweeten the deal. “Tell you what, give us some space, and I’ll buy you all a round.”
“Go on,” she urged the grunts as if shooing chickens. She added with a grin, “I’m sure Corporal Everett doesn’t want any witnesses when he gets his ass handed to him.”
The marines dispersed toward the bar with muffled guffaws.
His interest ramped another notch, Reid propped his cue against the table and cocked his head to study all five-foot-nothin’ of her. “You sure talk big for such a puny little thing.” She was probably no more than a buck ten soaking wet, yet had the balls to go toe-to-toe with him.
“I laid my money down, didn’t I? What are we playing?” she asked.
“Let’s just keep it a simple game of eight ball.” He offered her a cue. “Ladies first?”
“No. Lag for break. I play by the rules.” She set up two balls for the shot.
He came up beside her and leaned over the table, his cue poised. “Always?” He was close enough to smell her, fresh and sweet like ripe strawberries. “Sometimes it’s more fun to break ’em.”
She snorted and chalked her cue. “Says the guy whose entire life is dictated by the USMC for what, the next four years?”
“Six more. I signed on for eight.”
“Eight?” she pulled back with a surprised look. “What kind of idiocy is that?”
He stiffened. She had no qualms about speaking her mind, for damn sure. Lucky she was an attractive female. Good-looking women could just about get away with murder. Hell, many had. It was an injustice, or maybe God’s idea of a joke, but facts were facts. Men had a long history of making life and death decisions guided by their dicks. His was already exerting a great deal of influence.
“Back home we have another word for it. It’s called patriotism.”
“Don’t get your feathers all ruffled,” she came back. “I just don’t understand anyone’s desire for that kind of life.”
“The military creates order out of chaos. That often applies as much to the individual as to the mission.”
“That may be, but there’s plenty of other ways than the military to ‘find yourself.’”
“I s’pose so,” he replied. “But look how many people waste years of their lives in college only to end up flipping burgers.”
She tossed her head. “And killing skills are so much more practical in life?” Her voice and eyes challenged. Taunted. But he wasn’t about to take her bait.
“The Marines teach more than killing. Look…er… Hell, I still don’t even know your name.”
“Haley,” she answered softly. “Haley Cooper.”
“Look, Miz Cooper, we obviously don’t see eye to eye on this issue, so let’s just drop it and play.”
They completed the lag shot, both balls bouncing off the table to return to the head rail. Reid’s ball was closest, a millimeter from touching the rail. He considered the table. “Looks like it’s gonna be ladies first after all.”
“You sure you want me to break?” She flashed him a smug smile. “You might live to regret that decision, cowboy.”
Reid stood a couple of steps behind and slightly to the right, perfectly positioned to scope her out as she set up her next shot. Every movement was too damned distracting. Her dress clung to her ass, riding up as she bent over the table, but not as far as he’d like. He guessed she was a distance runner by the look of her lean and shapely legs. He found his gaze caught in a loop, tracking up and down between her legs and ass.
She broke, and then straightened, tugging her skirt back down over her legs. “You haven’t said what your job is, Corporal Everett.”
“Scout sniper.” He flushed, knowing what was coming next. She’d try to put him on the defensive.
“You’re a sniper?” Her eyes widened. “Isn’t that the same as an assassin?”
He felt his color deepen another shade, but was careful to keep his expression and voice neutral. “A scout sniper’s primary function is to conduct close reconnaissance and surveillance in order to gain intelligence on the enemy and terrain. By necessity, he must be skilled in long-range marksmanship from concealed locations in order to support combat operations.”
“Wow. That was a mouthful. Did you quote all that from some soldier manual?”
“A U.S. Marine isn’t a soldier.”
“What’s the difference? You both make war, don’t you?”
“The Marine Corps’ primary mission isn’t to make war but to protect this country and those who can’t protect themselves, Miz Cooper.” He continued unapologetically, “Unfortunately, sometimes that does mean war and killing.”
“So you actually think some people deserve to die?” She studied him as if she knew she’d ventured onto treacherous ground but was still determined to see how far he’d let her tread. She was intentionally pushing his hot buttons, but he was accustomed to maintaining rigid self-control.
“Some do,” he answered levelly. There was no way to win once an argument got emotional. “I’m a peaceful man who believes in minding my own pastures, but I also believe in good and evil. There are a lot of very bad people in this world. Certainly the ones who fly airplanes through skyscrapers. When that kind of thing happens, I believe in doing whatever it takes to protect our own. A marine is one of two things, either your best friend or your worst enemy.”
Her face was flushed, and her green eyes blazed. He’d unbalanced her. Good.
He could see her getting more worked up by the minute, and damned if he wasn’t also—just not in the same way. She’d been baiting him from the start, spewing arguments that usually just pissed him off, but in this case, it was turning him on.
His gaze locked on her mouth. Her tongue darted out as if she read his thoughts. She drew a breath as if to formulate another rebuttal, but he’d had enough. Before her lips could spout off anymore of the Pacifist Tree Hugger’s Manifesto, he pulled her into his arms and silenced her with his.
The kiss had come without warning, and Haley was too stunned at first to react. He began gently enough, his lips sliding over hers, hands cupping her face, thumbs stroking her jaw, and then he grew more insistent, his tongue probing the seal of her lips. She resisted the urge to soften, to open to him. His callused hands were simultaneously firm and gentle, and his lips paradoxically soft and commanding.
Mere seconds had her head spinning and stomach fluttering. Part of her wanted to give into it, to see where it might lead, but the other half resented his audacity. Her pride won out. She was slipping fast and not about to let him pull her in any deeper. She stiffened, pressing her hands against his chest.
He released her instantly.
She stepped back, knees weak and pulse racing. “I didn’t come here looking to hook up.”
“Neither did I. But sometimes unexpected things happen.” His gaze locked with hers, a look of speculation gleaming in his eyes. “When they do, it’s best to just go with your gut instinct.”
“That so? Well all my instincts scream ‘no marines,’ so don’t let it happen again.”
Suddenly remembering the cue in her hand, Haley turned back to the table. It took all of her will to focus back on the game. She could hardly believe how he’d nearly unraveled her with a single kiss. Then again, no one had ever kissed her like that. She made her break, pocketing the one, and then moved methodically around the table, calling each shot as she sank every solid. Only the eight ball remained, but it was trapped behind two stripes.
Reid’s lips curved with smug certainty. “Looks like I’ll get my turn after all.”
“Don’t count your chickens, cowboy.” She laid down her cue and searched the wall behind her for a shorter one. “Jump cue,” she answered his silent question.
“You’re kidding right?”
“Nope.” Approaching the table, she angled for her shot. She could almost feel his eyes on her ass. She glanced over her shoulder. Sure enough. He was leaning against the wall with both arms crossed over his broad chest, his gaze zeroed in on her behind.
“Enjoying the view?”
“Sure am,” he confessed, unabashed.
He was sadly mistaken if he thought he’d unnerve her. Keeping him in her peripheral vision, she widened her stance and stretched out over the table. All sign of smugness evaporated from his face. He tugged on his jeans.
Haley grinned, reveling in her small victory, and then prepared for a bigger one. “Eight ball, side pocket,” she declared with confidence. On a three count she took the shot, jumping the stripes to pocket the eight. “Yeah baby!” She threw down the cue and fisted the air, gloating in her triumph.
Reid gaped at the table. “I’ll be goddamned. How did you learn to do that?”
“My grandpa was a regional pool champion.”
“That bit of information was mighty sneaky to withhold.”
She shrugged. “You didn’t ask. Loser buys. I’ll take a mojito.”