Hard Landing by Marliss Melton

Navy SEAL Brant “Bronco” Adams adores women but never lets himself get too close to any one of them—until he meets sweet, classy Rebecca McDougal.

Rebecca is the wife of Mad Max, Brant’s commanding officer and safely off-limits—until she confesses that she’s desperate to escape her nightmare of a marriage and that Max isn’t the upstanding commander they all think.

Emboldened to protect her, Brant skids head-long into Mad Max’s plot to do him in. Suddenly, the former playboy will assume any risk to give him and Rebecca hope for a future of their own.

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What was it about Rebecca McDougal that made him smile inside? He wasn’t attracted to her sexually—not much anyway. She wasn’t his type, which tended to be blondes with big knockers. Rebecca projected femininity, but she didn’t ooze it the way some women did. She represented everything that was honest, considerate, and classy.

He liked the way her glossy brown hair—today caught up in a ponytail—brushed her shoulders when she moved. The length of her neck, the dainty cleft in her chin, and the slight scoop of her nose created a profile he never tired of looking at.

“Hey,” he said, cluing her in to his presence.

To his astonishment, she jumped like a startled cat. The knife in her hand came close to slicing her cheek open as she whirled to face him, lifting up her hands simultaneously as if to ward him off.

Whoa, sister.

“Bronco,” she breathed, her gaze softening and her hands lowering. “God, you scared me.”

“Sorry.” He stepped closer, taking in her strained smile and the way she broke eye contact almost right away. Hosting these enormous parties couldn’t be easy. The skin of her face, usually soft and incandescent, looked like it was pulled taut over her forehead and especially around her mouth. “How are you doing?” he asked her.

“Good.” She glanced at him again, her dimples flashing momentarily, but they promptly disappeared as she took in the box of beer hanging from his left hand. “The cooler’s out back, if you want to stick those in there.” Turning her back to him, she went back to slicing celery.

Brant didn’t move. Everything about her greeting struck him as off. She hadn’t asked him how he was doing, for one thing, and she’d never not shown an interest in what was going on in his life. An awkward silence ensued, but then she broke it, asking, “Where’s your date?”

“Couldn’t find one,” he replied. Truth was he was dating two women at once, both of them SEAL groupies. The probability of one finding out about the other if he brought either to the party wasn’t worth the inevitable drama. Besides, he’d come here to see Rebecca, which neither of his playmates would understand.

“Oh, please,” she scoffed. The blade of her knife struck the cutting board at regular intervals. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.

“All right. You got me. I didn’t know which one to bring.” He hoisted the beer onto the countertop so he could lean a hip against it and watch her work. “In fact, I’m tired of juggling females. I think I’m going to try celibacy for a while.” The inspiration simply came to him.

She snorted at what she clearly perceived was a falsehood. “Sure you are.”

“You don’t believe me?” Her lack of faith wounded him. “You think I can’t handle celibacy?”

“Maybe for a day, but I bet you couldn’t last a week.”

“Really?” Now he wanted to prove her wrong.

She set her knife down, turned her head and contemplated him. Chestnut-brown eyes trekked over his chest, then back up to his face, sparking an unexpected thrill in him. He tamped down his response at once, blaming it on her flowered sundress with its plunging neckline, which showed a surprising amount of cleavage—not that he was looking. He liked and respected Rebecca too much to think of her as anything more than a friend.

“Try it,” she suggested, her face hardening in a way that he didn’t understand. “Let’s see how long you last.”

Wow, something had her riled up. Now that he realized as much, he could see a storm brewing behind her pleasant façade.

He sent her a searching look. “What’s my sex life got to do with anything?”

She went still, blinked, and looked away. “Nothing.” Her sweet mouth twisted into a semblance of a smile. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to go there.” She started to turn away, but he reached for her elbow and drew her back around.

“Hey.” It might have been the first time they’d ever touched with the exception of that Christmas Eve, almost three years ago, when the CO introduced his new bride to him. The skin on her forearm was even smoother and softer than her palm had been that day. He squashed the urge to rub his thumb over it. “Something’s bothering you, Becca. You want to talk about it?”

Eyes wide, she swallowed visibly. “I’m fine,” she said in a tight voice.

When women said that, it meant they were anything but fine. A weight of concern dropped into the pit of Brant’s stomach. He searched her gaze, wishing he could read her mind. “You know you can tell me anything,” he murmured.

They had touched on a multitude of topics over the last three years, carrying on conversations so interesting and stimulating that he hadn’t wanted them to end. But their conversations had never become too intimate, for obvious reasons.

Her eyelashes, long and curved, swept downward, as she regarded his tanned hand still on her forearm, though she made no move to pull away.

A rush of air and the sudden onslaught of voices warned him that guests were entering the house. With a reluctance he didn’t care to question, he released her, picked up the case of beer, and turned away. He hadn’t taken two steps before he ran into her husband, followed immediately by Master Chief Kuzinsky, who inspired fear just like Max, but also respect.

The CO’s gray eyes glinted as he divided a suspicious look between his chief and his wife.

Seriously? Was the man that possessive that he didn’t like seeing his wife alone with his chief? Or was it Brant’s reputation with the ladies that bothered him?

“You’re late,” the man growled. Standing two inches above Brant’s six feet, he filled the kitchen with his larger-than-life aura. Nearly as broad as he was tall, with a crop of ash-brown hair and a walrus-like mustache, he reminded Brant of a nor’easter—full of bluster and potential destruction.

Best not to point out that his attendance was supposed to be voluntary.

Behind the CO, Rusty Kuzinsky, who stood a full head shorter than his commander, but was still considered the biggest badass SEAL in history for the number of firefights he’d survived, gave a subtle jerk of his auburn head, indicating Brant should get outside and join the others. Muttering his excuse, Brant sidestepped the two men and slipped out back into the humidity of a late summer’s evening.

The scent of barbecued ribs, chlorine, and citronella hit him along with the warm air as he headed for the cooler. Transferring his beer offering into the giant tub of ice, he kept one for himself, twisted off the cap, and looked around as he took his first swallow. His good friend, Bullfrog, floated in the pool atop an inflatable lounge chair. Brant toasted him with his bottle and received a salute from Bullfrog’s red, plastic cup. On the other side of the pool, Lt. Sam Sasseville, who went by no other name than Sam, and his pretty wife, Maddy, sat in the shade of the gazebo with their newborn sleeping in a carrier between them. Spying an empty spot next to them, Brant worked his way through the gathering, passing several more members of his unit along the way.

Haiku, the Japanese American communications specialist who often spoke in abstract riddles, was chatting up a gorgeous young woman with a puzzled look on her face.

Brant laughed to himself as he traipsed past them. He made a note to give Haiku a little advice. If you want to impress a girl with a bra size bigger than her IQ, you’d better speak plainly, and maybe just in one-word compliments.

Corey Cooper, leader of Charlie Platoon, gesticulated wildly and weaved on his feet at the edge of the pool while telling a story to a handful of listeners. His audience included Hack, their new techno-geek, Carl Wolfe, the breacher who knew more about explosives than any man alive, Halliday, a former NASCAR driver, and Bamm-Bamm, their linguist, who could speak seven languages when he wasn’t yet twenty-one years old.

Brant didn’t intentionally push Corey Cooper into the pool. But he did brush a little too closely, and the junior lieutenant, who’d yet to prove that he could replace his injured and retired predecessor, flailed and lost his balance, splashing everyone who’d been listening to him as he toppled backwards into the water.

“Bronco!” Maddy scolded, shaking her golden mane in exasperation.

Brant didn’t bother defending his innocence. Sam’s wife wouldn’t believe him anyway, since she considered him the bad boy of Echo Platoon. His nickname, Bronco, didn’t come from the fact that he drove an old truck by that name, but from his pre-Navy experience as a bronc rider. It was true he’d been around the arena a time or two.

Once upon a time, he’d gotten his thrills competing in rodeos in his home state of Montana. But then he’d given up trying to follow in his famous father’s footsteps and fought hard to join the ranks of the U.S. Navy SEALs. Now he got his kicks descending on the enemy in the middle of the night and scaring them to death—quite literally. As rigorous and uncomfortable as platoon life got, he’d had more fun in the past eight years than he could have ever imagined.

Sam clasped his extended hand. “I was about to give up on you, brother,” he chided with a cadence in his voice that betrayed his Cuban heritage.

Brant dropped into the chair beside him, while sweeping his gaze over the assemblage by habit, looking for unseen dangers. Of course, there weren’t any, unless you considered the possibility that a drunken Corey Cooper appeared to be drowning in the shallow end. On closer inspection, he was only showing off his impressive lung capacity. Cooper held the team record for holding his breath underwater—anything to win the approbation of his teammates.

Brant looked over at Sam, relieved that his own platoon leader was a man he could look up to. “I had decided not to come,” he admitted. Of their own accord, his eyes swung toward the sliding glass door where he could see into the kitchen. There, he noticed his commander wore the same hard expression that he wore at work when giving orders, only now he was talking to Rebecca.

“She asked about you,” Sam muttered, following his gaze.

Intrigued, he looked curiously back at Sam. “What’d she say?”

Sam shrugged. “Just asked if you were coming.”

They both turned their gazes toward Rebecca as she exited the sliding glass door bearing the freshly loaded veggie tray. The corners of her mouth turned up in a smile that failed to tease out her dimples. Concern tugged at Brant for a second time, and he wondered again what might be wrong. Watching her fuss over the food display then pick up discarded paper plates, he realized she wasn’t mingling with the guests the way she usually did.

“Dude, you’d better stop staring at her,” Sam warned out of the corner of his mouth.

He jerked his gaze away, encountering Max’s glacial stare as their CO stepped outside to rejoin the party. As Brant watched, he turned with a counterfeit grin toward a knot of officers of equal and senior ranking to himself. When it came to brownnosing with the upper brass, no one could outshine Max.

Brant drained his beer in one long swallow and stood up. “Looks like I’d better rescue Cooper,” he observed. He whipped off his T-shirt and kicked off his flip-flops, leaving him in only his swim trunks, which he’d worn in lieu of shorts.

Taking three long steps, he dropped feetfirst into the five-foot depth, letting the cool, clear water encapsulate him. He emptied his lungs of air so that his lean body mass carried him to the bottom of the pool. There, he quietly observed the world from a different perspective.

Bullfrog’s red lounge chair floated quietly overhead, with his long, narrow feet paddling him leisurely about. Those feet, matched with Bullfrog’s lean length, made him a fast and tireless swimmer—hence the nickname Bullfrog, which was especially fitting since his first name was Jeremiah, the amphibian hero of the famed song.

A trio of women sat in the water on the steps, their shapely thighs and calves visible for Brant’s viewing pleasure. Right beside him, also at the bottom of the pool, Corey Cooper had turned his head to regard him warily. The grin Brant sent him had Cooper jackknifing toward the surface for a much-needed breath.

Brant waited for the lieutenant to refill his lungs before he jerked Cooper’s feet out from under him. And then the roughhousing began.

Cooper’s lankiness gave him a slight advantage, allowing him to sip in quick gulps of air by pushing off the bottom of the pool to crest the surface. Brant didn’t always have that luxury. Nor could he hold his breath for five minutes like Cooper could, but what he lacked in length and lung capacity, he made up for in agility, honed reflexes, and eight years of experience compared to Cooper’s three. In an impressively short amount of time—and to the accompanying cheers of his teammates—he twisted Cooper into a hold the Charlie Platoon leader couldn’t break and made him cry uncle.

Huffing from the effort it had taken to trounce the younger man, Brant ruffled Cooper’s hair good-naturedly. Out the corner of his eye, he spied Rebecca smiling at him wryly, and he checked the urge to send her a victor’s grin. Every eye at the party was trained on him, making that unwise, so he grinned at Sam instead.

Then he heaved himself out of the water to drip dry. Only then did he allow himself to glance back at Rebecca, who was staring at his torso. She jerked her gaze away at once, but it was too late. He’d seen that stunned and hungry look on other women’s faces. The gratification that slammed through him was as satisfying as it was inappropriate.

Water dripped off his hair and slid down his back. No! he told himself sternly, in the voice of the grandfather who’d helped his single mother raise him. That woman is off-limits.

Not because she was married—hell, he’d had affairs with plenty of married women. Not even because she was his CO’s wife and hitting on her was tantamount to committing suicide. But, oddly enough, because he really liked her. Respected her. The code he’d established from the age that he’d become sexually active was inviolable. He never had sex with a woman that he truly liked. That way he’d never make the mistake his father made.

He’d been told by other guys that his code made no sense. To him it made perfect sense. He could be exactly like the man his father was—charismatic, athletic, and fun to be with, but with one big difference. He’d never break a woman’s heart like his father had broken his mother’s when he’d made her believe in a future together.

The trick was never to do that. Never spend quality time with any one of them; that way they never got ideas that led them to heartbreak.

His approach to relationships had worked beautifully for twelve years. He saw no reason to alter it. But what if Rebecca was right? What if he’d become such a player that he couldn’t go without sex for a week?

Nah, he’d done that plenty of times. Every time he went on an operation, in fact, where access to women was impossible, and he had no choice. But that’s different, his conscience argued, from voluntarily going without.

Unsettled by his potential character flaw, he leaped to his feet to fetch something to eat.