A stubborn Texas Marine pilot and the woman of his dreams, can they make it work the second time around?
Marine pilot Captain Garrick "Paladin" Stark is back in the United States after being stationed in Japan. He loves his career but something is missing. His woman. And he wants her back.
Delaney Byrd works for the USO. One night at a club she finds herself face to face with a man she knew she'd never forget, a man who had started off as a one night stand yet lasted a year.
Garrick vows after finding Delaney this time will be different. He wants forever. Still, there're numerous things they need to overcome. When the chance arrives for him to tell her how he feels, will she believe him? Can she look past what she is scared of becoming and accept his love?
The club was loud; the music shook the very floor beneath her feet. Delaney wove in and out of the gyrating bodies to the bar. The bartender, a tall hunk of a man, turned toward her and lifted his chin in silent question.
“Two beers please,” she said loudly, leaning along the shiny black bar top.
Within moments, he’d placed them down before her. “Here you go, gorgeous.”
He winked and dragged the cloth from his shoulder across the counter before taking the bill she handed him. A smile curved up his mouth, showing her a dimple in his left cheek. Damnation, he’s fine. She took the change he handed her and slid a tip back across to him. With another wink, he slipped the bill into his pocket.
“Thanks,” he said.
“No, thank you,” she replied, toasting him with her beer and then, grabbing the other, slipped back into the crowd.
Delaney made her way back to where her friend Heather Trells sat at a table, her long leg across the other chair to keep it for her. “Here you go, one beer, courtesy of the hunky bartender.”
Heather glanced up and smiled at her. “Oh thank God you’re back, I’m thirsty. Wait, hunky bartender? Is that what you said?”
Sitting down, Delaney took a drink of her beer and laughed. She stared at her friend. Heather’s brown eyes sparkled with humor. Her dark brown skin had some leftover glitter on it from the earlier party she had been to. Her outfit was tight and she looked hot. But then Heather always did. Delaney hadn’t gone to the first one but had come here to meet her.
“Yes, he was good looking.”
“And what? I got the beers.”
“Hooking up with him?”
Beer almost spewed from her mouth. “Are you crazy? Why would I do that?”
“He’s hunky, or so you said.”
“I don’t sleep with guys just because they look good.” Well, not anymore. As if reading her mind, Heather merely arched a plucked brow. “What? Fine, since I’ve gotten back to the States I don’t do that anymore.”
“Had more fun in Japan though, I bet.”
“It was a onetime thing,” Delaney said with a slight snap.
“Right, if you say so. Ever think there is a reason you’ve never done such a thing again? Perhaps because that man with the black hair, kickass body, and sapphire blue eyes meant something more to you? But, if you say it was a onetime thing, I’ll let it go. Doubt it, but hey what do I know? I mean, you kept a by-all-accounts gorgeous Marine pilot enamored with you without even trying. So this is me letting it go, if you say that’s all it was, who am I to argue?” Heather tipped up her bottle and drank.
An attorney who does a damn good job arguing for a living. “I say so, Heather,” she said, rolling her eyes.
Her friend held up a hand and Delaney knew she would say no more on it for the night. Heather backing off was barely a twenty-four hour deal, but she’d take what she could get. A man came up and asked Heather to dance; Delaney watched her go with him, pulled her friend’s beer closer and hooked her boot around the leg of the chair.
Holding her own drink to her mouth, Delaney paused and remembered the man she’d had the fling with. Fling, can we really call it that? First Lieutenant Garrick Stark. Handsome. Texan. Marine pilot. And damn good with his hands, mouth, and other parts of his body. The way Heather talked it was like she’d done the one night thing all the time while in Japan. She hadn’t. Her “thing” with that one guy had started as that but she couldn’t get enough of him, so one night had turned to two and that turned into a year until she came back to the States. Just up and left without a word to him, of course he’d been deployed when she had the chance to move back. They did very few things as a couple, for the most part it was sexual between them. Hot and heavy. Not that she minded, but she did long for something more every now and then.
A few songs later Heather came back all smiles. “Do you mind if I go with him?” Heather asked, reaching for her beer.
Delaney lifted a brow. “I’m not your mom. If you want to go with him then fine. Just make sure you know what you’re doing.”
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” Heather said, setting the bottle back down.
“Always am, sweetie.” She leaned over and pressed their cheeks together. “Sorry for bailin’ on you.”
The man walked up and stood behind Heather. Delaney made sure to capture his gaze before she said, “I’ll expect your call in the morning before we have to be in court.”
Heather stood up and nodded. “I’ll talk to you then, hon. Good night.” With a wave they slipped off into the crowd.
With a sip of beer, Delaney sighed. Just my luck. Get dragged out to a bar and then left alone. She sat until her drink was gone, then she headed back out onto the floor. It didn’t take long for her to get lost in the pounding rhythm of the music. When she needed a drink, she slipped through to the bar again. The same guy was there and he looked at her with a grin.
“Back already? You must have missed me.”
She chuckled and nodded sagely. “That could be. Or it could be I’m thirsty.”
“Well, I’m here to serve. Two beers again?”
“No, not this time. One water please.”
“One? One implies you are alone.”
“Does it now?” She leaned against the bar. Maybe Heather has a point and I should find someone for a no-strings attached night of sex. It’s been eight months.
“You know us bartenders analyze things.” He handed her chilled bottled water. “On the house.”
“Just save me a dance, will you?” he asked.
“You stuck back there for a while?”
Glancing at his watch he grinned. “Ten minutes too long?”
“I think I can handle that. Come find me when you’re done.”
“You can count on it,” he said.
She’d finished her water and had gone to the bathroom by the time the bartender showed up at her side. His brown eyes twinkled in the lights as he stared down at her.
Facing him completely, she asked over the music, “Do I at least get to know your name?”
“Rafe,” he answered, leaning closer. “What about your name?”
“Delaney Kiojah Byrd.” A masculine voice floated out from the music and wrapped around her, causing goose bumps to explode up all over her skin.
Oh shit. It was a tone she knew well. A deep and thick lazy Texas drawl that could turn her from a respectable woman to hussy craving his touch all over her. What the hell is he doing here? I must be imagining things. The way her body was reacting, Delaney knew there was no such luck for her on that front.
Rafe stared behind her, one eyebrow raised. “And you are?”
“The one who will hurt you if you don’t walk away right now.” Masculine assuredness flowed from the tone.
Without turning around, Delaney sighed. “Let me handle this, Rafe. I’ll come find you in a few.”
He glanced between the two of them. “Are you sure?”
“She’s sure,” the one behind her answered.
“I’ll be at the bar,” Rafe told her and walked off.
Spinning around ready to blast the speaker for his highhanded arrogance, Delaney promptly lost her breath. Before her stood the man she’d spent a year with. The only man on the face of this earth who knew her body as well as she did, perhaps better. A few inches over six feet, muscular body, tanned skin, black hair kept in a close marine cut, and dark sapphire blue eyes which could—and did—turn her into mush. Marine pilot Garrick “Paladin” Stark.
“First Lieutenant Garrick Stark,” she said, doing her best to ignore the pull this man had on her. “How nice to see you again.”
His gaze blazed with possessiveness as he ran it over her body, making her want to shift and tug on her clothing. Or remove it all together and jump his fine ass.
“Actually, it’s Captain Stark now.”
Captain Stark. Ohhh, that sounds so much better. “Congratulations on your promotion. If you’ll excuse me—”
“No. I don’t think so, sugar.”
She bit back her whimper at his endearment. Before he’d entered her life, she’d despised names like that being attached to her, but when they rolled off his tongue, with that toe-curling Texas twang, it was all she could do to stop the flood of moisture from escaping. “I don’t really care what you think; I owe the bartender a dance.”
His black lashes lowered and hid his eyes but not the fire that shot from them. “You go dance a dance with your pretty boy bartender. I’ll wait.”
Lifting her chin, she glared at him. “You seem to be under the impression I’m going to be going anywhere with you.”
“You are.” Garrick stepped closer and her body tingled and grew wetter with unrestrained desire. “Either walking at my side or tossed over my shoulder.” Lowering his face to hers he whispered, “One dance, sugar. And dressed the way you are, there’d better be a hell of a lot space between y’all. Or I’ll rip the parts of his body that touches you off him.”
It took all of her willpower not to close the minute distance between them and kiss his bow-shaped lips. “Arrogant...” she muttered before stomping off. He wasn’t ever jealous or possessive like this back in Japan.
Soon she had found Rafe and they were out on the floor dancing, but even as she moved with the handsome man her mind was upon Garrick Stark. Captain Garrick Stark. After the dance, she exchanged numbers with Rafe, but made her way to the side.
I can’t believe I’m letting him tell me what to do. I’m a grown woman for cryin’ out loud. Setting her jaw, Delaney prepared herself for a battle. Hot or not, I’m in charge of my life, not him. Even she didn’t believe that.
Garrick leaned against a pillar and watched as Delaney Byrd moved across the room toward him. Arms crossed he had a hard time staying to the side while she danced with that damn bartender. His gaze moved up her form. Damn her! His cock was harder than the floor of which he stood upon. Delaney wore a leather mini skirt, with full length side zippers, a tight cut-off shirt the same color as her wine hued boots, which showed her flat belly. Her dark brown hair with its coppery red highlights was gathered up and left to fall free down her back. Knee-length four inch heeled leather boots made him realize how much he’d missed her legs wrapped around him. The urge to smash every man’s face in was right under the surface.
How dare they look at my woman! She’s lucky I didn’t drag her out of here the second I laid eyes on her, with her wearing that. Who the hell did she come dressed like that for?
Her skin had a light flush from dancing. She looked up at him and lifted a brow. “What do you want?” she demanded.
“Same thing I wanted in Japan. You, sugar. Why’d you run with no word?”
Her tongue snuck out and dampened her lips, his cock pulsed in response. Garrick dug his fingers into his palms to keep his hands to himself.
“We were sleeping with each other, Garrick. That’s it. You were gone when I had the chance to come back to the States. Was I really supposed to put that on hold for a man who was deployed for an uncertain amount of time? Besides, short of coming up for air in between bouts of sex, it’s not like we had a real relationship beyond the bedroom.” Delaney lifted her shoulders. “What does it matter, really?”
“I cared,” he growled, stepping closer, wanting desperately to remove her from everyone’s vision. “And for the past eight months I’ve not been able to get you out of my mind.” I hate it that she’s right. I should have made more of an effort to do things with her other than sex.
There was disbelief on her face. With a shake of her head, she opened her mouth to say something when another voice broke in. “Come dance with me, baby.” Garrick snapped his gaze over to the man reaching for Delaney. “Get lost,” he growled.
“Dude, this is a club, you come here to dance. You’re not dancing with this hottie, so back off.”
He saw red. Not just any red, a deep vicious, angry red. There was no warning and like a snake his hand shot out to enclose around the man’s neck. Only it never made it. Delaney stopped him, her light brown hand curled around his wrist. Meeting her gaze, he saw the slight shake of her head and he barely managed to rein his anger back under control.
“Sorry, man,” she said. “I’m not dancing anymore.”
“You with him?” the guy asked as if unaware how close he’d been to death.
“Yes, she is,” Garrick bit out.
This statement earned him another glare from Delaney. He didn’t care. That year had been phenomenal and he’d been all turned around when she’d disappeared upon his return. Now that he’d found her again, there was no way he was letting her go.
“Let’s go get this damn chat over with,” Delaney groused.
Garrick almost chuckled. Almost. As if talking to me for five minutes will make me go away.. Still, in the back of his mind there was doubt. Placing his hand against the small of her back, he led her towards the door. Her body heat singed his palm. His stared ahead, making sure she had a clear path, knowing full well all bets would be off if he stared at her tantalizing brown skin any more. Or the way she moved. Hell, even the way she smells. Delaney had always smelled like a roaring waterfall to him, fresh, clean, and pure. Like the adventure life should be.
She hesitated at the door but he refused to let her stop. He led her right to his truck. When they reached it, he turned her, pressed her luscious body up against the side of it and covered her mouth with his. With a rumble of primal lust he thrust his tongue deep into her mouth, her addictive taste flooding him. Mine! You are mine, Delaney! He couldn’t get enough and he held her tighter, his hands sliding down over the smooth supple leather of her skirt to rest on the curve of her hips.
Tongues stroking against one another, Garrick grunted his approval when her hands slid up over his tee shirt, her nails raking as they went, her passion as great as his. She looped her arms around his neck and purred into his mouth, the height of her heels giving him better access to her mouth. His erection dug into the material of his pants, desperate to be released and find relief. The kind of relief he could only find with the woman in his arms. The kind that superseded just the physical.
Need, raw and primitive, tore at him. Garrick moved one hand to the side and began lifting the zipper of her skirt. His fingers touched her thigh and he felt his cock throb. Slowly ending the kiss, he drew back just enough to stare into her eyes; the parking lot lights emphasized the intermittent gold streaks in the pale green irises.
“Delaney,” he murmured, his voice deepened by desire.
She swallowed and dropped her hands. Pushing against him, she tossed her head and stared at him. “That isn’t why I came out here. What did you need to say to me?”
“Did you think of me after you left?” He stepped closer and rubbed his erection against her. “Did you ever relive what we shared with one another in Japan?”
Her pupils dilated and her nose flared. “That was the past.”
“I never forgot, sugar. Never.”
“Are you stationed here?” she asked.
“Yes. I’ve just got assigned here to Pensacola. MATSG Pensacola if you want to be specific.” Garrick lowered his head and licked the outer shell of her ear, delighting in her shiver.
“Answer me, Delaney. Did you think of me?”
“Yes, Garrick. I did. Are you happy now?” Delaney ducked her head and crossed her arms over her midsection.
“Happier,” he said. “Look at me, Delaney.” Garrick waited until she did, her gaze wary now. “I don’t know why you ran. We had something special. Rare. I want it again. I’m telling you now. Lord knows I want to take you home with me and show you what your outfit does to me. Hell, better yet, take you right here against my truck.” He nuzzled the side of her neck. “I want you so bad, Delaney. Will you come home with me?” I am more than willing to sneak her into my room on base.
“Say yes, sugar. It’s been six months since I got back, eight since I’ve seen you.” He cupped her face.
“Is that what this is about? A booty call? Because we both know there are sluts that hang out around the bars near base for that very reason. Go get one of them.”
Garrick could hear the anger lining her tone. “No. Sugar, I hear your voice and I want you. I smell your scent, the smell of waterfalls all pure and fresh, and I want you. It’s more than sex. I want you, Delaney Kiojah Byrd.”
“Have you thought that I might be in a relationship?”
His gaze narrowed. “No way.”
“And what’s so wrong with me?” she snapped.
Garrick raked his gaze over her attire. “Nothing, sugar. Not a damn thing. But that outfit you’re wearing, and you being here alone. There’s no man.” And I’d kill him for you belong to me.
“You always were cocky.”
“Yes, I can’t argue that.”
“I need to get some sleep, Garrick. I wasn’t even planning on coming out tonight. I had a hellish day.”
“Why did you come out then?”
“Heather. She won a big lawsuit today and was out celebrating. She called me from her office party and said she was coming here, so I came to spend time with her.”
“I didn’t see her with you. Is she still in there?” Garrick asked, remembering her speaking about her friend, Heather Trells, and he’d seen some photos of her. Beautiful woman. Not the one he wanted though.
“No, she left me for some guy she met on the dance floor.”
“She sure that was wise?”
“Heather’s a lot more dangerous than she lets on. She’s careful and he knows I’m expecting to hear from her in the morning.”
He frowned but kept his mouth shut. “Will you call me tomorrow, Delaney? So we can meet and talk?”
“And if I say no?”
“I’m takin’ you home with me tonight.”
“You still get up early for your run?” Her hands settled back upon his chest, her movements so automatic, he wasn’t sure she realized she was doing it.
“I’m a creature of habit.” He inhaled sharply and closed his eyes against the lust in his veins.
“You’re a Marine.”
“I’m your Marine,” Garrick corrected.
“That assumes I want one.” Staring into her eyes, he lifted a brow. With a sigh, Delaney gave him her address. “I’ll have breakfast ready by six. But this time, Garrick. I want the truth of what you’re after. This isn’t Japan anymore; I’m done with fucking for the sake of fucking.”
Good. So am I. Brushing his lips over hers he waited until they parted. Garrick backed off and drawled, “You’d better strap your boots on, sugar, I want it all.”
He watched her walk away and step up into a GMC Denali. Garrick licked his lips as her firm ass disappeared from view. Without moving, he stared until she left the parking lot. Resting his arms along the back of his dark Chevy Silverado, he sighed.
“This time will be different, Delaney. I’ll be damned if I let you go again.”
“You a marine?” a disturbingly highly pitched female voice asked beside him.
Turning his head, Garrick saw a slender blonde with whose clothes were more gone than there leaning against his tailgate. He looked her up and down, not even remotely turned on by the breasts which were barely contained in her skimpy halter top or the skirt which should have been a pocket for all it covered.
“What gave it away,” he said slowly, “the words ‘Semper Fi’ written in red on the tailgate? Or the big thing in the back window that says ‘United States Marine Corps’ on top of the American flag?”
A slight smile lifted her mouth, as if she were unsure whether or not he joked. “Looking for some company?” she asked.
“Nope.” Not from you anyway.
Digging for his keys, he unlocked his truck and started it. The woman had barely moved from the back before he pulled out of the parking lot and headed back to his apartment, after driving by the address Delaney had given him. In his room on NAS Pensacola, Garrick kicked off his boots and rubbed the short hair on his head. He’d arrived in Pensacola eight days ago. It had taken him that long to run into someone he’d known from when he’d been with Delaney in Japan. That man had grinned and asked him if he’d hooked back up with Delaney since she was in town.
The news she was close by had nearly floored him. Getting the name of the clubs she’d been seen at, he went out and as luck would have it, he’d found her. The second one he’d stopped at. No one knew how much she’d affected him. Least of all her. But this time around he had to change all that. This time it would be different. This time it would be forever.
“Delaney,” he whispered as he stood in the shower. Curving his hand around his rigid erection, he stroked himself to release, her image in his mind.