Shane was winning when she walked in.
His plan was a simple one: spend a few hours here in this lowlife bar and win enough money playing pool to take the T down to Copley Square, where there was a cluster of expensive hotels. Hit one of the hotel bars, where the women not only had all of their teeth, but they also had corporate expense accounts and key cards to the comfortable rooms upstairs.
But drinks there were pricey. Shane had spent his remaining fifty-eight seconds at the Kenmore comm-station checking menus, and he knew he’d need at least twenty dollars just to sit at the bar and nurse a beer. Fifty to buy a lady a drink. And expense account or not, you had to be ready to start the game by buying the lady a drink.
But then she walked in-or rather limped in. She was smaller than the average woman, and slight of build. She’d also injured her foot, probably her ankle, but other than that, she carried herself like an operator. She’d certainly scanned the room like one as she’d come in.
Which was when Shane had gotten a hit from her eyes. They were pale and he couldn’t tell from this distance whether they were blue or green or even a light shade of brown. But the color didn’t matter, it was the glimpse he got of the woman within that had made him snap to attention-internally, that is.
She looked right at him, gave him some direct eye contact, then assessed him. She took a very brief second to appreciate his handsome face and trim form, catalogued him, and finally dismissed him.
Of course, he was playing the role of the hick just off the turnip truck-he would have dismissed himself, too, had he just walked in.
Shane watched from the corner of his eye as she sat at the bar, shrugged out of her jacket to reveal a black tank top, then pulled off her hat and scarf. She was completely tattoo-free-at least in all of the traditional places that he could currently see.
Her light-colored hair was cut short and was charmingly messed. But it was the back of her neck that killed him. Long and slender and pale, it was so utterly feminine-almost in proud defiance of her masculine clothing choices, her nicely-toned shoulders and arms, and her complete and total lack of makeup.
And Shane was instantly intrigued. He found himself restrategizing and forming a solid Plan B almost before he was aware he was doing it.
Plan A had him missing the next shot-the seven in the side pocket and the four in the corner-which would lead to his opponent, a likable enough local man named Pete, winning the game. After which Shane would proclaim it was Pete’s lucky night, and challenge the man to a rematch, double or nothing, all the while seeming to get more and more loaded.
Because Pete was a far better player than he was pretending to be. Pete was hustling him, and all of the regulars in this bar knew it, and at that point the bets would start to fly. Shane would drunkenly cover them all, but then would play the next game in earnest, identifying himself as a hustler in kind as he kicked Pete’s decent but amateurish ass. He’d then take his fairly won earnings and boogie out of Dodge.
Because if there was one thing Shane had learned from the best pool player in his SEAL team-an E-6 named Magic Kozinski-it was that you didn’t hustle a game and stick around for a victory beer. That could be hazardous to one’s health. Resentment would grow. And resentment plus alcohol was never a good mix.
Plan B, however, allowed Shane to stick around. It gave him options.
So he called and then sank both the seven and the four, then called and missed the two, which put the balls on the table into a not-impossible but definitely tricky setup. Which Pete intentionally missed, because making the shot would’ve ID’d him as the hustler that he was.
They finished the game that way-with Pete setting up a bunch of nice, easy shots, and letting Shane win. Which put five dollars into Shane’s nearly-empty pocket.
Which was enough to buy a lady a drink in a shithole like this.
“You’re on fire tonight,” Pete said, when Shane didn’t do an appropriate asshole-ish victory dance. “How ’bout a rematch, bro?”
And Shane wanted to sit Pete down and give him a crash course in hustling, because this was a beginner’s mistake. You never, ever suggested the rematch yourself, not if you’d just intentionally lost the game. The mark had to do it, otherwise the hustle was too much of a con. The mark had to think he was going to screw you out of your hard-earned pay.
Pete’s suggestion made him significantly less likable and more of the kind of sleazebag who deserved his ass handed to him on a platter.
“I don’t know, man,” Shane said, massaging the muscles at the base of his skull as if he’d had a hard day at the construction site. “You’re pretty good. Let me think about it . . . ?”
Pete thankfully didn’t push. “I’ll be here all night. But, hey, lemme buy you another beer. On account of your winning and all.”
Better and better. As long as Pete didn’t follow him over to the bar. “Thanks,” Shane said. “I’m going to, um, hit the men’s and . . .”
But instead of going into the bathroom in the back, he went to the bar and slid up onto one of the stools next to the woman with the pretty eyes. She was drinking whiskey, straight up, and she’d already ordered and paid for her next two glasses-they were lined up in front of her in a very clear message that said, No, butthead, you may not buy me a drink. She’d also purposely left an empty-stool buffer between herself and the other patrons. And the glance she gave Shane as he sat let him know that she would have preferred keeping her personal DMZ intact.
Her eyes were blue, but she’d flattened them into a very frosty don’t fuck with me, dead-woman-walking glare. It was a hell of a talent. The first chief Shane had ever worked with in the SEAL teams-Andy Markos, rest his soul-could deliver the same soulless affect. It was scary as shit to be hit with that look. Even to those who knew him well and outranked him.
But here and now, Shane let this woman know that he wasn’t scared and didn’t give a shit that she didn’t want him sitting there, by giving her an answering smile; letting his eyes twinkle a little, as if they were sharing a private joke.
She broke the eye contact as she shook her head, muttering something that sounded like, “Why do I do this to myself?”
Any conversational opener was a win, so Shane took it for the invitation that it wasn’t. “Do what to yourself?”
Another head shake, this one with an eye roll. “Look, I’m not interested.”
“Actually, I came over because I saw that you were limping,” Shane lied. “You know, when you came in? I trashed my ankle about a year ago. They giving you steroids for the swelling?”
“Really,” she said. “You’re wasting your time.”
She wasn’t as pretty as he’d thought she was, from a distance. But she wasn’t exactly not-pretty either. Still, her face was a little too square, her nose a little too small and round, her lips a little too narrow. Her short hair wasn’t blond as he’d first thought, but rather a bland shade of uninspiring light brown. She was also athletic to the point of near breastlessness. The thug he’d tangled with earlier that evening had had bigger pecs than this woman did beneath her tank top.
But those eyes . . .
They weren’t just blue, they were green, too, with bits of hazel and specks of gold and brown thrown in for good measure.
They were incredible.
“Be careful if they do,” Shane told her. “You know, give you steroids. I had a series of shots that made me feel great. They really helped, but ten months after the last injection, I was still testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. Which was problematic when I tried to earn some easy money cage fighting.”
She turned to look at him. “Is that it? You done with your public service announcement?”
He smiled back at her. “Not quite. I did a little research online and found out that that particular drug can stay in your system for as long as eighteen months. I’ve still got six months to kill.”
“Before you can become a cage fighter,” she said, with plenty of yeah right scorn in her voice. “Does that usually impress the girls?”
“I’ve actually never told anyone before,” Shane admitted. “You know, that I stooped that low? But it is amazing what you’ll do when you’re broke, isn’t it?” He finished his beer and held the empty up toward the bartender, asking for another. “Pete’s paying,” he told the man, then turned back to the woman, who’d gone back to staring at her whiskey. “I’m Shane Laughlin. From San Diego.”
She sighed and finished her drink, pushing the empty glass toward the far edge of the bar and pulling her second closer to her and taking a sip.
“So what are you doing in Boston, Shane?” he asked for her, as if she actually cared. “Wow, that’s a good question. I’m former Navy. I haven’t been out all that long, and I’ve been having some trouble finding a job. I got a lead on something short term-here in Boston. I actually start tomorrow. How about you? Are you local?”
When she turned and looked at him, her eyes were finally filled with life. It was a life that leaned a little heavy on the anger and disgust, but that was better than the flat nothing she’d given him earlier. “You seriously think I don’t know that you’re slumming?”
Shane laughed his surprise. “What?”
“You heard what I said and you know what I meant.”
“Wow. If anyone’s slumming here . . . Did you miss the part of the conversation where I admitted to being the loser who can’t find a job?”
“You and how many millions of Americans?” she asked. “Except it’s a shocker for you, isn’t it, Navy? You’ve never not been in demand-you probably went into the military right out of high school and . . . Plus, you were an officer, right? I can smell it on you.” She narrowed her eyes as if his being an officer was a terrible thing.
“Yeah, I was officer.” He dropped his biggest bomb. “In the SEAL teams.”
She looked him dead in the eye as it bounced. “Big fucking deal, Dixie-Cup. You’re out now. Welcome to the real world, where things don’t always go your way.”
He laughed-because what she’d just said was pretty funny. “You obviously have no idea what a SEAL does.”
“I don’t,” she admitted. “No one does. Not since the military entered the government’s cone of silence.”
“I specialized in things not going my way,” Shane told her.
“So why’d you leave, then?” she asked, and when he didn’t answer right away, she toasted him with her drink and drained it. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
“I’m proud of what I did-what I was,” he said quietly. “Even now. Especially now. But you’re right-partly right. About the shock. I had no idea how bad bad could be, before I was . . . kicked out and blacklisted.” Her head came up at that. “So, see, you’re the one who’s slumming. You could get into trouble just for talking to me.”
She was looking at him now-really looking. “What exactly did you do?”
Shane looked back at her, directly into those eyes as he thought about his team, about Rick and Owen, about Slinger and Johnny, and yes, Magic, too. . . . “I disobeyed a direct order-which is something I did all the time out in the world, as a SEAL team CO. But this time? It was apparently unforgivable. And that, combined with my need to speak truth, even to power, and my inability to grovel and appropriately kiss ass . . . It got ugly. In the end, someone had to go, so . . .” He shrugged, still convinced after all these hard months that he’d done the right thing. “I was stripped of my rank and command-and dishonorably discharged.”
She sat there, gazing at him. His answer had been rather vague and even cryptic, but it was still more than he’d told anyone since it had happened. So he just waited, looking back at her, until she finally asked, “So what do you want from me?”
There were so many possible answers to that question, but Shane went with honesty. “I saw you come in and I thought . . . Maybe you’re looking for the same thing I am. And since I find you unbelievably attractive . . .”
She smiled at that, and even though it was a rueful smile, it transformed her. “Yeah, actually, you don’t. I mean, you think you find me . . . But . . .” She shook her head.
Shane leaned forward. “I’m pretty sure you don’t know what I’m thinking.” He tried to let her see it in his eyes, though-the fact that he was thinking about how it would feel for both of them with his tongue in her mouth, with her hands in his hair, her legs locked around him as he pushed himself home.
He reached out to touch her-nothing too aggressive or invasive-just the back of one finger against the narrow gracefulness of her wrist.
But just like that, the vaguely fuzzy picture in his head slammed into sharp focus, and she was moving against him, naked in his arms, and, Christ, he was seconds from release as he gazed into her incredible eyes. . . .
Shane sat back so fast that he knocked over his bottle of beer. He fumbled after it, grabbing it and, because it had been nearly full, the foam volcanoed out of the top. He covered it with his mouth, taking a long swig, grateful for the cold liquid, aware as hell that he’d gone from semi-aroused to fully locked and loaded, in the beat of a heart.
What the hell?
Yeah, it had been a long time since he’d gotten some, but damn.
His nameless new friend had pushed her stool slightly back from the bar-away from him-and she was now frowning down at her injured foot, rotating her ankle. She then looked up at him, and the world seemed to tilt. Because there was heat in her eyes, too. Heat and surprise and speculation and . . .
“I’m Mac,” she told him as she tossed back the remains of her final drink. “And I don’t usually do this, but . . . I’ve got a place, just around the corner.”
She was already pulling on her jacket, putting on her scarf and hat.
As if his going with her was a given. As if there were no way in hell that he’d turn her down.
Shane was already off the stool and grabbing his own jacket, as she-Mac-went out the door. Her limp was less pronounced-apparently the whiskey had done her some good. In fact, she was moving pretty quickly. He had to hustle to keep up.
“Hey,” he said, as they hit the street, and the bar door closed behind him. “Um, Mac? Maybe we should find, you know, a dealer? I’m not carrying any um . . . So unless you have, you know . . .” He cleared his throat.
She stopped walking and looked up at him. Standing there on the sidewalk, he was aware of how much bigger and taller he was. She was tiny-and significantly younger than he’d thought. More like twenty-two, instead of pushing thirty, the way he’d figured her to be, back in the bar.
Or maybe it was just the glow from the dim streetlight, making her look like youthful beauty and desire personified.
“Why do men have a problem saying the pill?” she asked.
Shane laughed. “It’s not the words,” he told her. “It’s the concept. See, what if I’d misunderstood and-”
“You didn’t. And FYI, this is Massachusetts. It’s still legal here. No need to back-alley it.”
“Well, good. But . . . we still need . . . some.”
She smiled, and Jesus, she was beautiful. “Don’t worry, I got it handled.” Her gaze became a once-over that was nearly palpable, lingering for a moment on the unmistakable bulge beneath the button-fly of his jeans. She looked back into his eyes. “Or I will, soon enough.”
No doubt about it, his luck had changed.
“Please promise that you’re not luring me back to your apartment with the intention of locking me in chains and keeping me as your love slave,” he said. “Or-wait. Maybe what I really want is for you to promise that you are.”
She laughed at that. “You’re not my type for long-term imprisonment,” she told him. But then she stood on her toes, tugging at the front of his jacket so that he leaned down. She was going to kiss him and they both knew it, but she took her time and he let her, just waiting as she looked into his eyes, as she brought her mouth up and softly brushed her lips against his.
Shane closed his eyes-God, it was sweet-as he let himself be kissed again, and then again. And this time, she tasted him, her tongue against his lips. He opened his mouth, and then, Christ, it wasn’t sweet, it was pure hunger, white-hot and overwhelming, and he pulled her hard into his arms, even as she clung to him, trying to get even closer.
The world could’ve exploded around him and he wouldn’t have cared. He wouldn’t have looked up-wouldn’t have stopped kissing her.
And through all the layers of clothing, their jackets, their pants, his shorts, and whatever she had on beneath her cargo BDUs-God, he couldn’t wait to find out what she wore for underwear-Shane felt her stomach, warm and taut against his erection, and just that distant contact was enough to bring him teetering dangerously close to the edge.
And by the time he made sense of that information and formed a vaguely coherent thought-holy shit, just kissing this woman was enough to make him crazy-it was almost too late.
Almost. But only because she pulled away from him. She was laughing, her incredible eyes dancing as she looked up at him. As if she knew exactly what he was feeling.
She held out her gloved hand for him, so he took it, and then-bad ankle be damned-she pulled him forward.
And together, they started to run.
From the book BORN TO DARKNESS
By Suzanne Brockmann
A Ballantine Book
Copyright 2012 by Suzanne Brockmann
Excerpt copyright 2011 by Suzanne Brockmann