Keith had been wondering about the lack of coworkers for much of the night. In the year and a half he’d worked with Maddie, or Mad Dog, as the other members of the Hostile Response Team—or HRT—called her, he’d attended a handful of poker games and several cookouts at her place. Whenever he did, at least a couple of team members also came. Tonight, other than him, the guest list consisted of Maddie’s older brother, who was temporarily living with her, Maddie’s neighbors, and her friends Cassidy and Jasmine.
While all their coworkers wouldn’t have come, it seemed unlikely that everyone but him declined the invitation this evening. At the same time, it didn’t make sense that Maddie would invite him and not everyone else. Keith considered the members of HRT to be more than coworkers or friends. He saw them as family. He’d never asked, but he knew everyone on the team felt the same way. That was just one of the reasons he’d hesitated to cross the line with Maddie. Getting involved with her could jeopardize not only his friendship and working relationship with her but also the rest of the team too. The second reason was a problem of his own fucking making.
Until a few months ago, he’d viewed her as Mad Dog Dempsey, a woman who spoke several languages, had once worked on an FBI SWAT team, and shot more accurately than him. And since she’d been just another teammate, he’d held nothing back if Maddie was around, so she knew a lot about his private life. And up until a few months ago, his personal life included casual hookups and no-strings-attached dating.
He’d stopped seeing her as a friend and coworker back in the spring. Now Maddie infiltrated his thoughts at least once a day. The worst, though, was on the weekends when he knew she might be off screwing some faceless dude a friend set her up with—not that he had any evidence she spent her weekends doing that. But like everyone else on the team, Maddie held very little back regarding her private life. So, Keith knew her friends were constantly setting her up with single men they knew. At least since he’d known her, though, Maddie never fell for any of them. Yeah, a few lucky SOBs got multiple dates, but none ever had their phone number stay in Maddie’s contact list for more than a couple of months. Most didn’t even get added to it.
And every time those damn thoughts invaded his mind, Keith wished he’d kept his big trap shut more often when she’d been around rather than talk about whoever he’d left Shooter’s Pub with Saturday night—something he hadn’t done in months. Not only hadn’t he left the pub or any other bar with a woman, but he’d lived like a monk all summer, a fact Salty and Spike loved to bust his balls about every chance they got. At least they were the only ones, though.
He shared a lot with his friends, but he’d kept his feelings for Maddie to himself, or at least he’d tried. Unfortunately, months ago, he’d met up with Salty and Spike on a Saturday night when he knew Maddie had a date with some guy named George who worked with Maddie’s friend Jasmine. Hoping they’d help chase away the X-rated visions of what Maddie and her date were up to, he’d had one too many beers. The drinks hadn’t done a damn thing about his imagination. But they had caused him to open his big mouth and spill his guts. The following day, he woke on Spike’s sofa with a raging headache. Thankfully, the only time Salty or Spike gave him a hard time about his lack of a sex life and the reason behind it was when none of the other team members were around. As much as it drove him crazy, he couldn’t fault either of them. Salty was no longer single, but if Spike found himself in a similar position tomorrow, Keith would do precisely the same thing to him. Unfortunately, that would never happen because Spike, unlike him, was smart enough never to find himself in such a situation.
Keith’s eyes remained focused on the back door as Maddie and Cassidy exited the house, clearly engrossed in a conversation.
What the hell are they talking about?
Was Cassidy setting Maddie up on a date for this weekend? Tomorrow night, instead of sitting outside with her friends, would Maddie be naked in bed with some bodybuilder Cassidy knew named Bill?
An image of a guy with biceps the size of Keith’s thighs lying on Maddie’s bed while she moved her lips down his chest formed, and he clenched his jaw, sending pain through his cheek.
“Hey, you look upset. Is everything okay, Keith?” Jasmine asked, sitting down next to him.
Keith looked away from Maddie and Cassidy, but unfortunately, the bedroom scene continued to play out in his head. Sometimes his imagination was too damn good.
“Yeah, I just thought of something I need to do at work on Monday.”
“Work is one thing I do not want to think about tonight. I’ve only been back two weeks, and I’m already counting the days until I’m back in Puerto Rico.”
Some days were better than others, but he could honestly say he loved his job. Of course, it probably helped that he liked everyone he worked with, which wasn’t the case for a lot of people.
“I’ve never been there, but my sister Kristen and her husband went last year. She said it was amazing. They want to go back next year, but they promised my niece a trip to Florida over February’s school break,” Keith said
“She’s right. I go there at least twice a year. If my family didn’t all live in Virginia and I knew I could find a job, I’d move there in a heartbeat. You need to visit.” Leaning toward him, Jasmine placed her hand on his arm. “Don’t get me wrong, the beaches around here are nice, but they’re nothing like the ones there. The water is crystal clear, and the weather is perfect. I think I spent almost my whole vacation on a lounge chair in my bikini. The only place with equally nice weather is Hawaii. But the flight there is just too darn long.”
“Both are on my bucket list of places to visit someday.”
Thanks to his time in the army, he’d seen more of the world than many people. Most of those places, though, weren’t locations people vacationed in.
“I think you made the right call,” Maddie said to Cassidy.
At the sound of Maddie’s voice, Keith looked away from Jasmine and watched as Maddie and Cassidy stopped near chairs on the other side of the firepit. Although Maddie sat down, Cassidy remained standing as they continued their conversation.
Please park your ass over there.
He wasn’t up for a repeat performance of keep-away with Cassidy right now.
“I don’t know what Maddie does to them, but no one makes better buffalo wings,” Declan, Maddie’s neighbor, said as he stopped at the table near Keith long enough to refill his plate. Once finished, Declan made himself at home in the empty chair next to Keith, and he had never in his life been so happy to have a dude sitting next to him instead of a beautiful woman.
“Maddie’s buffalo wings are good,” Jasmine commented, “but there’s a bar in Puerto Rico called Mojito that serves some that are like nothing I’ve tasted anywhere. And I make sure I stop in at least once when I’m there.”
Jasmine slid her fingertips down his forearm. When she reached his wrist, she reversed her path. Keith remembered Maddie telling him her friend would flirt with anyone with a Y chromosome. Tonight, though, was the first time she’d turned her attention his way. He guessed it was because she’d arrived alone, whereas all the other times he’d seen her at Maddie’s, she’d been with someone. Much like with Cassidy, he wouldn’t have minded Jasmine’s attention several months ago. But, unlike Cassidy, who would’ve fit in perfectly at the Playboy Mansion, Jasmine had more of a girl-next-door look, something that always turned him on. Maddie shared the same look, although in her case it was more of a girl-next-door who can kick your ass if she needs to.
“I even asked the manager for the recipe last time I was there, but he wouldn’t give it to me,” Jasmine said with a slight pout.
Keith reached for his drink, more to dislodge Jasmine’s hand than because he was thirsty. “Yeah, a lot of restaurants won’t give out recipes.”
Next to him, Declan reached over and snagged the last wing off the platter without asking first if anyone wanted it. “Are there any more buffalo wings inside?”
Maddie paused in her conversation with Cassidy to answer. “Yeah, I’ll go heat more.”
“I can do it,” Declan said after licking the sauce from his fingers. While the wings were out of this world, they were also messy.
Putting down her soda, Maddie stood. “You’re a guest. I don’t mind. Does anyone else need anything?” She glanced around the group, but her gaze seemed to linger on him longer than anyone else.
Did I imagine it?
Her brother held up his empty bottle in response to her question. “Another hard cider, if you remember.”
Keith watched Maddie walk back into the house. He’d hoped to get her alone tonight so they could talk. About what, he had no damn clue, but talking seemed like a good way to gauge her feelings toward him. Now might be the only chance he got.
“You know, I could use another drink too.” Keith stood, dislodging Jasmine’s hand for a second time. “I’ll be back.”
But I just might find a different seat when I return.
When he entered the kitchen, Maddie stood with her back against the counter and her eyes closed.
“Hey, is everything okay?”
She opened her eyes as he closed the door behind him. “Yeah. Just getting a little tired. Some coffee might help.” Pushing off the counter, she set her drink down. “Do you want anything?”
He didn’t make a habit of lying, but he felt dumb telling her he’d followed her inside because he wanted to talk. “I came inside to see if you needed any help. But if you don’t mind, I’ll grab myself one of those.” He pointed toward the hard cider she’d put down on the counter.
After opening the bottle, Keith watched her reach for something inside the cupboard. The action caused her T-shirt to ride up, exposing her lower back and tormenting him. His fingers itched to touch the bare skin, see if it was as smooth as it looked. And if he knew doing so wouldn’t earn him a slap to the face, or worse, he would do it.
Dragging his eyes away from the tantalizing strip of skin, he searched for a safe topic. Maddie and her brother were close, so he figured he couldn’t go wrong there. “How long is Spencer staying here?” If she’d already told him, he didn’t remember.
“Spencer made an offer on a condo near Jasmine earlier this week, and the owners accepted it, so probably not too much longer.”
Evidently, Maddie didn’t find what she wanted because she moved her attention to a higher shelf, revealing more skin in the process. Before he did something stupid, and his imagination was full of stupid actions right now, Keith shoved his hands in his pockets and leaned against the counter.
Vacations were usually safe topics too, and she’d recently returned from a short one. “Did Cassidy and Jasmine go with you to Myrtle Beach last weekend?”
She’d told him it was a girls’ weekend but not who she’d traveled with or what they’d done. Honestly, Keith wasn’t sure he wanted to know what or who she’d done while down there, but asking about the trip gave him a reason to stick around.
“Only Cassidy did. She needed it. She just got out of a long relationship and needed some time to vent.”
“You mean she needed a chance to man bash.” He’d heard his two sisters do enough of that over the years, especially when a relationship turned sour.
Maddie shrugged. “Maybe a little.” Grabbing a bag of coffee, she set it down next to the coffeepot and went back to searching the cupboard. “So, which one is going to be the lucky lady tonight? If you need help, I can distract one while you leave with the other.”
“Thanks for the offer,” he said, unable to keep the annoyance out of his voice. Maddie couldn’t blame Cassidy’s and Jasmine’s behavior on him. He’d done nothing to encourage either woman tonight. And if he could tell them both to get lost without being rude, he would.
It might not matter, but Keith needed her to know he wasn’t interested in either of her friends. “I know they’re your friends, but part of the reason I came in here was to get away from them both.”
Giving up her search, Maddie turned and faced him. “Are you feeling okay? Should I get the thermometer and check your temperature?”
Maddie looked so surprised, Keith couldn’t contain his smile as he moved away from the counter and toward her. “I’m feeling fine, but I won’t stop you if you want to play nurse.”
“If you want a nurse, we should call Neil. He was a medic in the navy,” she said, referring to another team member.
“I’m not interested in Neil either.”
Grow a damn set already. Spike’s recent recommendation echoed in his head.
Ignoring the possible repercussions, Keith stepped closer and put his hands on her shoulders. Then, when Maddie didn’t move away or tell him to back off, he lowered his head toward hers, giving her plenty of time to pull away. And when she didn’t do that or something worse, he brushed his lips against hers.
Rather than push him away—actually, Maddie would’ve given him a violent shove or a fist to the gut if she wanted him to stop—her arms went around his neck, and she leaned into him. He’d wanted to taste her for so long, and it took every ounce of self-control not to tease her lips apart and plunge inside like he’d done so many times in his dreams.
“Hey, Maddie, we’re all out of salsa. Do we have any more?” Spencer asked from behind him.
At the sound of her brother’s voice, Maddie pulled away so fast one would think a starting pistol had gone off and she was running the 100-meter dash.
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