Rules are made to be broken . . .
When it comes to dating, ex-Navy SEAL Marcus Denali has a few simple rules. Never date a coworker. Never date a friend's sister. And never ever date a girl whose brother is a coworker, a friend, and a fellow SEAL. So why would Marcus dance so closely—and flirt so shamelessly—with Mandy Lawson? Simple. It's a Fourth of July masquerade ball. He doesn't know she's his buddy's little sister. And once the masks come off, the real fireworks begin . . .
Mandy doesn't care about the rules. She's been crushing on Marcus for years, and she's not giving up now that she has proof he wants her too. She has a plan to show this military man some moves he never learned in basic training. And Marcus is going to learn that some rules—the rules of attraction—are just too strong to fight.
“Relationships aren’t my thing, angel. I don’t believe in love, and I have no desire to get married.”
The whole notion left a bad taste in his mouth. His parents had gotten married right out of high school, because his mother had gotten pregnant. His father had been an angry, bitter man, resenting his and Ava’s presences. Not long after his seventh birthday his father ran off with a prostitute, of all things. His mother drank to escape, then one day, when he was around ten, she dropped him and Ava off with their grandmother and never looked back.
The idea of getting married turned his stomach. It meant someday having kids, and he had no desire to risk scarring another human being. Hell, he already knew he wouldn’t be any good at it. Ava’s bipolar disorder had meant he’d had to take care of her, often as if she were a wayward teenager, and in the end, he’d failed her. Six months into his last deployment, Ava took her own life. Her death had only proven what he already knew.
“I’m not somebody to be relied on.” He stroked his thumb across Mandy’s chin, allowed himself a moment to get lost in the softness of her skin. “If I keep my relationships light, then nobody gets hurt.”
Mandy’s gaze searched his face, as if she were trying to figure him out somehow. “And yet men have. SEALs are teams. You rely on each other.”
He grunted his acknowledgment. She had him there. Being a SEAL was one the thing he’d done well. Hell, he’d thrived as a SEAL. The challenge and teamwork. But even there, he’d lost friends. Too damn many of them. And like Ava’s, every death hung on his soul.
Confusion filled Mandy’s eyes. “So why use a dating service, then? What did you hope to get out of it?”
“Because I’m human. I get lonely, too, and a one-night stand just doesn’t do it for me anymore.” He released a heavy breath. “What I need is someone I can see for a while. Someone my grandmother will like.”
“Wait…” Mandy cocked her head sideways, staring at him like he’d grown another head. “You sought out a dating service to make your grandmother happy?”
He rubbed the back of his neck. Yeah, okay, so it sounded as pathetic as he’d assumed.
He stared out into the street beyond, watching the passing cars. “My grandmother’s the reason I am who I am, that I ended up where I did and not in a jail cell. I was a rotten teenager. Rebellious. Cocky. I’d gotten in with the wrong crowd and Gram yanked me out by my ear. She saved my damn life. Last year, she came down with pneumonia. Since then, she’s been laying on the guilt trip, telling me how much she wants grandbabies and wishes I’d settle down. The way I see it, the only thing that will make her happy is if she thinks I’m attached.”
“You want something temporary.”
He made a sound of agreement from the back of his throat. “I need someone I can bring to Sunday dinners, who’ll pretend to be my girlfriend, but won’t expect anything from me. I need Gram to know I’m fine, and she won’t stop worrying unless she sees me with someone.”
Mandy’s intense gaze burned into him, but he couldn’t force himself to look at her. He had no desire to know what played in her eyes. Instead, he idly watched the car lights flicker over the buildings they passed.
“And if I offered to be that someone?”
He jerked his gaze to hers. Had he heard her right? “Why would you do that?”
“Because I think it’s sweet that you want to. Not very many men would go through so much trouble for their grandmothers.” She shrugged and laid a tentative hand against his chest. “It means you have a heart in here. That’s sexy in my book.”
He glanced down to where her small hand lay against his chest. Three layers of clothing separated them: his dress shirt, the T-shirt underneath, and a thick suit jacket. He ached to strip it all off just to feel those soft hands against his chest, skin on skin. For the simple pleasure of feeling her body against him again.
Mandy drew a shuddering breath. She slid her hands around his ribcage and up his back and leaned into him. Damned if he could stop his arms from coming around her in turn, or keep himself from leaning down and brushing his lips across hers. Holy Christ, she had the softest mouth.
Mandy pulled back first. Eyes still heavy-lidded and burning through him, she pulled out of his embrace and walked backwards toward the street. “I’ll play the part of your loving significant other, have Sunday dinners with your grandmother, whatever it is you need. But I want one thing.”
He shouldn’t ask the question seated on the tip of his tongue, but something in his gut demanded the answer. “What’s that?”
“Nights with you. Think about it.” She winked at him, then pivoted and strode out onto the sidewalk, disappearing around the corner of the building a few pounding heartbeats later.
Marcus could only stand and stare. Just like that, with a few simple words, she’d brought all his fantasies of her screaming to the forefront of his thoughts. Temptation stared him in the face, and the effort it took not to follow her, not to drag her back into the alley, press her against this damn building and hike that skirt up around her waist, had his body a mass of tension. His shoulders ached. His hands fisted at his sides. His blood roared in his ears. Son of a bitch. She had to go and lay that offer on the table. Right then, he couldn’t think of one damn good reason why he shouldn’t take her up on it.