Guarded Dreams: A Second Chance, Military Romance
From award-winning author LJ Evans comes a soul-tugging, first-love, standalone romance between a broody, military man and a spirited, musician who threatens everything he’s built…
"Just like the moon calls the tides, she has called me home. To her."
Serious, by-the-book Eli Wyatt has life all figured out. He’s got a five-year plan, his future in the Coast Guard, and friends who always have his back.
And then Ava Abrams breezes into his life, tempting him in ways he can’t shake.
A free spirit, Ava’s on the run, heading in the direction of her dreams. She's set her heart on Juilliard and country music stardom, not a happily ever after with a man she’s just met. Still, there’s something about gorgeous and enigmatic Eli that tugs at her soul.
Just as they start to fall, they’re forced into a goodbye that leaves only the memories of a fairytale summer.
Four years later, Eli stumbles into a bar with Ava on stage. And once again, she’s like a siren calling to him.
Will he make the same mistake and let her slip away? Or will he build a new dream with her at its center?
Inspired by Luke Bryan’s “Sunrise, Sunburn Sunset,” comes a slow burn, summer beach read about dreams lost and remade with vibrant characters and poetic prose you won’t want to miss.
Also available in The Anchor Novels: The Military Brothers box set with an exclusive novella.
Release date: May 2, 2019
Publisher: LJ Evans Book
Print pages: 458
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Behind the book
Not only was this book inspired by Luke Bryan's "Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset" but it was also inspired by Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher. I fell in love with their romance (and the sweetness of it) from a Pinterest picture of a Mila post (before her social media sites went dark - I guess). Then, I read an article Mila did for Glamour and a statement on Ashton's Twitter about building things from dreams, and the result was a second chance romance story all about dreams.
Like all the characters in my books, I like to think that Ava and Eli learn to live life resiliently. To take the challenges and successes that life throws at them, embed it into their souls, and become a newer, different version of themselves.
I hope you read Guarded Dreams and love it as much as I loved writing it.
♬ "Where Music & Stories Collide" ♬
Guarded Dreams: A Second Chance, Military Romance
GIRL LIKE YOU
“Turn out the lights and let me breathe you in,
Your eyes are so diamond, body so gold,
And I don't want to let you go,
I've never met a girl like you.”
—Performed by Jason Aldean
—Written by Boyer / Mirenda / Tyler
The heat and humidity assaulted me as I stepped out of the rented truck and looked up at the house on the shore of Aransas Bay. I groaned inwardly. I was so screwed. The guys weren’t going to let me live this down.
Somehow, the house had escaped Hurricane Harvey with only a few dents and bruises, but there’d been some reconstruction needed. The remnants of that renovation were obvious in the oversized trash container full of debris outside the two-car garage that took up the bottom floor of the home.
The house desperately needed a paint job. The color was, at the moment, a crazy mix of beaten yellow, raw wood, and left-over white. That was what the guys and I were here to do: paint the house.
I heard Mac and Truck grumble as they slammed the doors behind me.
“Holy fuck, Els-worth, what have you gotten us into?” Mac threw out. He only broke out the Els-worth when he wanted to make a point. He knew I hated it. Call me Eli, or Wyatt, or hell, even my full name of Elijah James Wyatt, but just don’t call me what the asshole lieutenant had our freshman year.
I turned to both of them. Mac was built like a linebacker. He barely fit in the cargo shorts and T-shirt he was wearing, looking as if he might go all Hulk any moment and tear the things apart. You could barely see his normally black hair under the crew cut he sported. His muscles flexed as he reached into the bed of the truck to pull out the military-style bag that we all had with us.
Truck—well, really Travis, but no one had called him that since freshman year—just shook his head at me. But his brown eyes were already flashing with mischief beneath the shaved head that made his ice-blonde hair practically invisible. His square frame was just as built as Mac’s, but he’d earned the name Truck for a reason. He blew through anyone and everyone that challenged him…just like a semi-truck. Together, they were Mac Truck. No one messed with them.
Except me. I couldn’t help it. I’d been born to razz them. Especially with their “ship-like” nickname that everyone called them when they were definitely not in a relationship.
If I harassed them too much, they’d try to give me shit back, and my frame might not be as thick as theirs, but I had enough of my own muscles to more than hold my own. For some reason, neither of them felt it a requirement to challenge me very often. But this…this house was going to make them challenge me for the entire eight days we were there.
“You said you wanted to stay on the beach as cheap as possible. Free is as cheap as it gets,” I retorted.
“But I didn’t say I wanted to work my ass off for eight days. We’ll be doing enough of that on the Kennedy,” Mac said.
He was right that the cadet cruise on the TS Kennedy that Texas A&M’s Maritime Academy made mandatory during the summers was nonstop work. I loved it, but not everyone did. For me, it was a glimpse at what I’d been striving and hoping for since I was a kid…to be on a boat, with a unit, making a difference.
I shrugged. “It’s a little paint. We’ll do a couple hours in the mornings and then take the afternoons off.”
“You think eight mornings are going to get this job done?” Travis stared at me incredulously.
I had to admit, now that I saw the house, I had my own doubts. Two stories. Two thousand square feet on the top floor where three bedrooms and two baths stared out at the bay. But the supplies were already here, including a spray gun, so I thought we could manage it.
Professor Abrams had insisted we could do the job in the days we were here while still having time to decompress before the summer “cruise” took off. It was debatable if he was right, but if I needed to put in some extra hours while the guys played, I didn’t really mind. I’d rather keep myself busy than sit at a bar drinking and eyeing the local girls, anyway.
We headed up the stairs, and I opened the door with the key that Abrams had given me before we’d departed.
Inside, it smelled like new paint and new furniture. Because everything was sparkling new. The wood floors were polished to a shine you could see yourself in. The walls were a mix of white shiplap and gray paint, and the kitchen spoke of money and trend all rolled into one.
“Didn’t know Abrams had this kind of dough.”
“Just don’t break anything, asswipes. We don’t have the nickels and dimes to pay for any repairs.”
I headed down the hall to the bedrooms. Two shared a Jack and Jill bathroom. The third was the master suite that stared out at the bay. I put my bag down by the dresser in the suite.
“Why do you get the master, Els-worth? It’s not like you’re going to be bringing any girls back here to show off.” Mac was still whining and still using the damn nickname, grating on my nerves.
“Did you make the arrangements? Do you want to suck face with gratitude to Abrams when we get back to school in August?” I asked.
Mac scoffed. “He’s the one who should suck up to us for doing this job for free.”
“In your wet dreams, douche,” I said.
He walked out to pick a room off the Jack and Jill.
I left my bag where it landed and went to the French doors. I opened them, stepping outside so I could breathe in the salty air and hear the waves crashing on the shoreline.
The ocean and me, we’d always been a thing. Twined together like almost nothing else in my life. It talked to my soul like some people said music or art talked to theirs.
I’d been on the water with my dad since I could crawl. And after…when he was gone, it was still the place I felt closest to him. It wasn’t the entire reason that my life goals surrounded the Coast Guard, but it was an undeniably large part of it.
“We need supplies,” Truck said, joining me on the deck.
“Abrams already bought everything we need. It’s in the garage.”
Truck laughed. “Not those kinds of supplies, asshole. We need food. Beer. You know, the two necessities.”
I sighed and headed back into the bedroom.
“Let me unpack, and then we’ll go into town.”
♫ ♫ ♫
When I pulled the black rental into the driveway of Abrams’ house after getting groceries, there was a beat-up red Honda sitting there.
We all grabbed the bags from the back and headed up the stairs. Truck and Mac were already discussing the grilling duties for the night. I was still eyeing the car that they didn’t seem to have noticed or cared about.
We heard the music before we even hit the top of the stairs. Loud. Country music. It was blaring out the open windows, letting the air conditioning cool the humidity instead of the other way around.
The guys and I exchanged a curious look.
I opened the door in time to see a blur of dark hair and tan skin jump off the coffee table, guitar in hand, strumming and screaming along to the lyrics.
Except it wasn’t really screaming. It was the huskiest, sexiest female voice I’d ever heard. Her hair was a tumble of dark curls and waves that flung out about her as she continued to move, swaying with the guitar and the lyrics. Her frame was all lean muscle with small curves in all the right places.
Her shorts barely covered those curves on her rear end, and a striped shirt was tied so that it bared her midriff, showing off more bronzed skin and muscles.
She was dancer and singer and girl all rolled into one. She hit me to my core and wouldn’t let me move. The guys were equally stunned, standing behind me, watching her perform for an audience she hadn’t even registered was there yet.
When she finally turned, mid-strum and mid-word, I was hit once more. This time by the intensity of her eyes that stared at me beneath dark lashes. One eye was as blue-green as a Caribbean island bay, while the other was almost muddy green like a Louisiana swamp. They didn’t match. And yet, they fit her perfectly.
The joy that radiated across her face from her performance slid off, just as her hand slid off her guitar at the sight of us.
“What the hell?” Her husky voice, full of surprise, washed over me in a wave that told of unsteady seas. Of beauty and desire and storms. And I knew I was in trouble.
“Who the hell are you?” Mac asked, and I had to put a hand holding a bag of groceries out to prevent him from striding toward her.
Her face had closed down, the moment of joy disappearing behind a stone wall. A beautiful stone wall.
She slid the guitar behind her, the strap emphasizing her breasts that were small and pert and barely hidden by the knot of the shirt that sat below them. Tempting me. Tempting all of us.
She should have been intimidated by three muscled men at the door. She should have been unsure and maybe a little shaky, but she wasn’t.
Instead, she climbed back onto the coffee table and, from there, stepped onto the couch so that she could get closer. She glared down at me from over the back of it. On the couch, she was barely taller than my six foot three. She put her hands on her hips, balancing on the soft cushions as if she owned it.
“Great. My dad’s asshole recruits. Did he send you to retrieve me like some AWOL cadet?” she asked.
I heard her words, but it was difficult to register them because I was still awash in the waves of emotion that she’d sent through my body. Like being tipped over in an unseen current when you swam into a wave.
“Your dad? You mean Abrams is your father?” Truck asked.
Mac started laughing. “Holy shit, that would mean someone was actually brave enough to have sex with that bastard.”
I dropped the groceries and slammed a fist into his shoulder—not hard enough to be a threat, but hard enough to make a point. “Asshole, that would be her dad you’re talking about.”
She laughed. A sound that was reminiscent of wind chimes lost inside a windstorm, muffled, but still strident. Sinking into your soul. “It’s okay. I often wonder the same thing. What must my mom have been like if she was really willing to put up with him for eight years?”
We all just continued to stare at each other—her on the couch, us with our groceries by the door. “You’ll literally have to drug and hog-tie me if you expect to take me back. Or you can just tell him you failed in your mission and enjoy the ocean view.”
There was a moment where I think uncertainty crossed her face, a flash of something that wasn’t confidence, but it was so quickly replaced with a rebellious look that I wasn’t sure I’d even seen it.
“We weren’t told you’d be here at all.” I finally found my voice.
“I mean it. I’m not—Wait. What?”
“Professor Abrams gave us the place for eight days before our summer cruise in exchange for painting it,” I explained.
She took me in then, really seeing me for the first time. She started at the top with my short hair that needed a cut, then traveled down to my hazel eyes before moving down to my snug T-shirt and tan skin from being near the sea. Once she’d traveled the length of me with her eyes, she returned them to mine, and my stomach flopped over. I wondered, vaguely, if this was how girls felt when my asshole friends looked them up and down in a bar.
She laughed, that husky tone reverberating down my spine once more. “Figures. Just my luck.”
She flung herself down on the couch, her mirth filling the air. Truck, Mac, and I all exchanged a look. We weren’t sure if she was an angel, or a demon, or just simply crazy.
Finally, she seemed to get ahold of herself, and she sat back up, her dark locks of hair swinging wildly about her face, her two-tone eyes taking in the three of us again. A smile brought her pink lips up at the edges in a way that made me want to touch them.
“I’m Ava. And it seems I’ve run away from home at the worst possible time.”
Run away. Shit.
“How old are you exactly?” I growled. I didn’t know if I was growling at her, or my own body’s reaction to her, or at the guys who were staring at her like she was the best thing since dry clothes.
She waved at me like I was asking something inconsequential. “Don’t worry. I’m not jailbait. I’m nineteen.”
That didn’t make her less jailbait in my mind. Messing with a professor’s daughter was always out of the question. No cadet would ever look at a faculty member’s child—girl, guy, or otherwise. It was the unspoken rule. You didn’t shit where you slept.
More than that, though, I wasn’t going to do anything that would get in the way of the life I saw for myself. Nothing.
“Not that I plan on sleeping with any of you, so y’all can pick your chins up off the floor,” she said.
“What exactly did you mean by running away then?” Truck asked.
She looked at our supplies.
“Is that Corona?”
She leaped over the back of the couch, snagged one from the bags I’d dropped, and headed to the kitchen before any of us could really register that she’d even moved. Or that she’d ignored Truck’s question.
It was evident that we were still in shock, because we just let her take the beer. At nineteen. Beer that we’d bought. That was a hell of a lot higher on the list of to-not-be-dones than sleeping with a professor’s daughter. Aiding and abetting the delinquency of a minor. No. Not minor, but underage? All my knowledge of the law was stuck in a no-man's-land that was called Ava.
She turned back, the Corona open at her lips. “Do you have any limes in there?”
“Duh,” Truck said. He was the first of us to move. He dropped his bags on the kitchen counter and started unloading them. When he found the bag of limes, he handed them to her.
She smiled at him, that gorgeous smile with lifted corners twitching, and I almost wanted to slam my best friend into the cabinets—for getting the smile, and for handing her the limes instead of taking the drink back.
Mac exchanged a look with me before shrugging and taking his bags into the kitchen. I was the last to follow. I was still lost in curled lips and a sexy voice and the threat to my unstarted career in the U.S. Coast Guard that was going to have me reaching for her beer and pulling it from those gorgeous lips.
“The road's been long and lonely
and you feel like giving up
There’s more to this
than just the breath you're breathing.”
—Performed by Maddie & Tae
—Written by Dye / Marlow / Vartanyan
I pulled a knife from the drawer and sliced the lime apart into wedges, squeezing and then stuffing one into the top of the Corona bottle.
I could feel them watching me. Mostly the tall, dark one. The man in charge. I hadn’t even needed them to speak to know that he was exactly that. I’d been around my dad’s corps of cadets enough to be able to spot the leader easily.
The leader was always the one in front. The one with an almost casual stride and stance that hid the coiled strength underneath it.
The blonde followed me into the kitchen first. After he’d opened his own beer and stuffed a lime inside, he put out his hand. “I’m Truck, that’s Mac, and the attitude over there is Eli.”
I couldn’t help but bust out laughing. They all gave me that is-this-girl-really-crazy look, but I didn’t care. “Mac Truck, really?”
Truck grinned and pulled Mac to him with a muscled arm.
“No one messes with the Mac Truck. We’re like the superheroes of the cadet world.”
“That’s like saying you’re the world’s greatest sidekicks.”
Truck faked a wounded grimace.
“Are you two…like…you know?” I asked, because who gave themselves a shared nickname in today's day and age unless they were a couple.
Mac pulled out of Truck’s hold and said curtly, “No.”
I chuckled. “There’s nothing wrong with that, you know. If you are. I mean, I think you’d still get a lot of flack for it in the military, but—”
“We’re not.” Mac turned back toward me with a wicked smile that I bet many ladies adored. “I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it if we were, but we’re not. I don’t think we’d be opposed to working out something with the three of us, though.”
“Knock it off, Macauley.” Tall and silent, Eli, finally spoke with a not-so-hidden warning in his voice.
Mac smiled at me with a shrug.
Eli made his way into the kitchen and quietly started putting the groceries away. I hopped up on the counter and watched them. Him.
He was leaner than either of the other two with a tattoo that peeked out from the back of his tight T-shirt at the neck. He was really more Jenna’s type than mine: tall, dark, brooding. Normally, I was all about guys like Truck, with mischief in their eyes and blonde hair. But somehow, I found my body actually leaning into Mr. Silent when he opened the pantry beside me.
“I promise I won’t bite you in the middle of the night,” I teased, surprised as the words slipped out of me. There was something about this guy that pulled at the edges of me, daring me to push him. Push myself.
He met my eyes with hazel ones the color of wheat in the summer sun. We were both caught there for a moment, sea and sand and grains of straw mixing together in our eyes.
“There isn’t going to be a middle of the night,” he said.
If I was daring to disobey my father’s commands just by being there, I certainly wasn’t going to be forced to obey this man’s. Not that I intended to spend the night with any of them. That wasn’t why I was there. I was there because I had a couple days before I could head north, and I refused to spend it in the same house as my father. I couldn’t do one more day without losing it. After trying to get past what he’d done earlier this year, the latest catastrophe I’d discovered had pushed me past the yellow, to green light, go.
Those thoughts brought me back to the beach house and the beer in my hand. I sighed and took a sip.
I was surprised when Eli pulled it out of my hand.
“You aren’t twenty-one,” he growled. It was an actual growl. Like one a guy in one of Jenna’s sexy novels would do. It made my insides tighten in an unfamiliar way.
“You only know that because I was honest about my age. The license I have in my wallet says I’m twenty-two. Will that make you feel better?”
I jumped off the counter, landing closer to him than I’d been before. I went to grab the beer back, but he brought it to his lips and chugged it down instead. I watched the movement, his Adam’s apple moving underneath the smooth skin beneath the stubble that dotted his chin and cheeks in a way that it wouldn’t if he was on duty.
When he was finished, his eyes turned down to meet mine again. There was something there. Not just desire. Something more that I didn’t want to identify. Dad’s cadets and I were like pineapple and pizza. They didn’t belong together.
I had plans that were a long way away from cadets, and military colleges, and Texas. I didn’t need anything getting in the way of that.
But I’d also had enough of people controlling my life, so I wasn’t going to let this cadet dictate for me what I could and couldn’t do. I moved away, taking another beer from the six pack in pure defiance. Like defying my father after he’d tried to take my future away. I stuffed another lime inside the bottle and moved out of the kitchen.
When I finally looked back at him, after sitting on top of the small dining room table, he was watching me. I just smiled and raised the beer to him before taking a sip.
I could see his whole jawline clench. I felt sort of bad. It wasn’t his fault that he’d caught me in the middle of one of my worst weeks ever. Scratch that. Worst few months ever.
I took another drink while he eyed me. I wouldn’t finish it. It would make me play sloppy later at the bar, and I never wanted that. I wanted to feel every moment of being onstage. It was what I lived for. I was determined to not let my dad, or anyone, or anything take that away from me again.
Maybe after my set it would be good to get drunk. Maybe it would allow me to forget, for a few hours, just how shitty things had been. But without Jenna, I wouldn’t be able to get too drunk. We’d always been each other’s safety valves. Only one of us drank at a time so that neither of us woke up having had something happen that we hadn’t wanted.
I ached to call Jenna. The only remorse I had about what I’d done was leaving without telling her, without giving her my new number. I didn’t want her to have to lie to my dad when he questioned her. She’d be his first line of attack once he realized that I wasn’t at graduation. That I wasn’t sitting in the chairs waiting for them to call my name like every other dumbass senior at that dumbass school he’d forced me to attend.
He'd be furious that I’d embarrassed him.
The three men finished putting away most of the food they’d bought in silence while I fought with my emotions, the pleasure of leaving tainted by the age-old fear and despair that came whenever I went against him. I had to remind myself there was nothing more he could do to me. Nothing I wasn’t prepared for.
My country music was still blaring. It didn’t seem to bother the cadets, but it was making me itch, making me want to pull out my guitar and start strumming along to forget everything but the music. So, I jumped down and went over to where I’d left my phone after syncing it to the expensive equipment Dad had recently bought for the home he rarely visited.
I switched over to a random playlist that Jenna and I used when we were getting ready to go out. Upbeat. Eclectic. Oldies and newbies mixed together. Hoping it would chase away some of the anxiety that had crawled over my skin.
When I turned back to the men, they’d moved on to preparing dinner, working as a team with minimal communication on a simple meal of hamburgers and tots. Eli moved past me to the deck and the expensive, built-in barbecue.
I followed and watched as Eli lit the briquettes. The smell sent my brain into a swirl of memories of parties that Dad had held at our home in Galveston. Parties for his fellow faculty members. Sometimes his favorite cadets. I’d never seen these three among them. That either meant he didn’t think they were connection-worthy, or it meant that they were smart enough to see Dad’s slime for what it was.
Greediness. A need to be connected to someone who would make a bid for some high-powered government position someday. Someone he could ride along with, like he’d once tagged along behind my grandfather. Before I could remember. Before my mom and grandparents had been taken away, leaving me with just Dad.
I hated that I couldn’t escape my thoughts of him today. I wanted so much to be free. Free of everything that was him.
I hopped up on the railing and slyly took a picture of Mr. Silent so that I could send it to Jenna later. She’d be all drool and no cool when I shared it. I already missed my best friend more than life. It was something I was going to have to get used to: life without Jenna beside me. Jenna was a typical Texas wildflower. Blonde. Blue-eyed. Perfectly done. She’d been my sanity since middle school, and now I was leaving her behind. I didn’t think she’d be surprised, but I knew she’d be as sad as I was.
Eli finished stoking the fire and then turned, stopping when he saw me on the rail. His eyes squinted together in disapproval. I wanted to laugh. He belonged in the military. He was going to be a natural.
“I don’t think you should be up there.” His voice was still deep and guttural. Maybe I brought it out in him, or maybe it was his natural tone. My body liked it even as my mind protested.
“Does what you think always matter?” I asked.
A flicker of emotion went through his eyes. He hid it well behind his control and authority. Maybe like I hid my torn heart behind my sass and music.
“Just not interested in picking up blood and bones today,” he said.
I looked down. Below me was the shell pathway that led out to the dock and the water. I wouldn’t even be there on the deck or on the rail if I’d had another choice.
The room I‘d sublet wouldn’t be ready until the end of the week, and I didn’t have enough money in my measly bank account to stay at a hotel and still pay my first month’s rent. So, I’d come here because Dad didn’t know that I knew that the renovations were done. That meant he wouldn’t think about coming here until he’d run out of the possibilities closer to home. I intended to be gone before he did.
Now, my plans were in jeopardy because of the arrival of three muscled men. Cadets who might tell their professor about the arrival of his wayward daughter. Apprehension filled me.
“How worried do I need to be?” he asked.
His voice at my side startled me. I hadn’t even heard him move. I wobbled on the rail, and he grabbed my waist before I could rebalance myself. His rough hands on my bare skin scorched me. They sent waves of desire and heat through my entire body, and when I met his eyes, I could see that it wasn’t just my body that had reacted to our touch.
He removed his hands, tucking them into the pockets of his cargo shorts. Shorts that didn’t seem to fit him as much as—I would bet good money—his uniform did. He backed away, taking my beer with him one more time.
“As long as you don’t sneak up on me, there’s nothing to worry about,” I said, jumping down.
“Then what are you running from?” he asked. I could feel those hazel eyes taking me in, but I just turned to the ocean. The humidity filled the air and my lungs with every breath. Like it was a part of me. Part of this life that I was trying to leave behind. Weighing me down when I needed to be light so that I could fly away.
“A future that isn’t mine,” I said, looking back at him.
I could tell he was considering my words, assessing them. As if that was something he did with every comment anyone made. Careful consideration. Planning.
Mac made it out to the deck with a pile of burgers. He handed another beer to Eli, eyeing the one on the barbecue that Eli had taken from me, and then went to work at the grill.
“So, Ava, is Daddy going to show up pissed at the three of us?” Mac asked without looking at me.
I didn’t blame him for asking. It was more than just the standard, “don’t get involved with the professor’s kid.” Dad’s reputation for reprisals was well-known and well-earned.
“I figure we have a couple days before he even thinks I might be here. He’ll want to exert the least amount of energy possible in order to retrieve me, so he’ll call before he shows up,” I told them honestly, hoping they wouldn’t rat me out.
“You’re not staying here,” Eli spoke up from his position leaning up against the doorframe.
I laughed, thinking he was joking, but then I saw his serious expression, and I knew he wasn’t. I wondered if he ever joked about anything. “Look, jerk, this is my house, not yours. You can’t kick me out. If you don’t like that I’m here, then run along and get yourself a hotel.”
“I told Professor Abrams that we’d paint the house,” Eli said matter-of-factly.
“You can still do that while staying at a hotel,” I responded.
Mac shifted uncomfortably.
They didn’t have the money either. Staying in a hotel at the beach in the middle of the prime summer season was unlikely to be anything that three measly cadets could afford.
I just let the whole subject drop, but Eli was still watching me, waiting to see what I’d do. I just watched Mac at the grill.
The burgers smelled good. And I was hungry. I hadn’t had anything since the caramel latte I’d grabbed at the gas station after making my escape. Food hadn’t been on my list of priorities. Getting away had.
My stomach growled loudly enough for both the guys on the deck to hear it. Mac smiled, Eli almost smiled, and I chuckled.
“You going to try and kick me out before you feed me?” I asked.
They weren’t kicking me out. They didn’t know how stubborn I could be, but they’d find out. I wasn’t planning on going to blows or anything—not that I could ever hope to fight off three muscled guys—but I wasn’t going to be around enough for them to argue about it with me.
“Nah. You can eat with us,” Mac said. I could tell Eli didn’t like it. He wanted me gone. He didn’t want me anywhere near their beach adventure regardless of how our bodies had reacted when he’d had his hands on my waist.
I didn’t really want me anywhere near them either. For many of the same reasons.
Truck joined us on the deck.
“Tots are ready.”
“Did you burn them to a crisp again?” Mac asked.
“No, wedgie-face, they’re appropriately crisp.”
“I didn’t know cooking tater tots required a culinary degree,” I teased, trying to lighten the mood. Lighten the heaviness inside me.
Truck gave me a serious look. “Tater tots are an art form, honey. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
I laughed, and he pretended to look offended.
No one said anything when I joined them in making up a burger and scooping tots from the pan. I was the first one to make it back out to the deck, and I found a spot on the top of the table. All three men stopped at the door when they saw me there.
I’d always felt more comfortable on top of things. It drove my dad crazy when I’d sit on the coffee table instead of the couch. Or the back of the couch instead of the cushions. Maybe that’s what had encouraged it. Pushing the limits on the little things that I could get away with without being reprimanded.
None of the guys said anything. They just found seats in the chairs. So predictable. I’d give my right arm to find a guy someday who would join me atop the table. Like Michael Schoeffling with Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles that Jenna had made me watch. I didn’t consider myself a romantic. And I definitely didn’t want to find love yet, like Jenna had, because I had bigger plans for myself. But someday…someday, I’d love to find someone who would see things, even momentarily, the way I did.
The guys were a quiet group. It was something I was unaccustomed to. The boys I was usually around were rowdy and obnoxious, striving to gain attention and top-dog status at a high school that was considered the next coming of God. But really, they were all bottom dwellers. More reasons for me to not want anything romantic with any of them.
I’d take this silence over the stupid teen jokes any day of the week. Plus, I guessed these men were used to being silent during mealtimes. Military code everywhere they went at school. Not exactly your normal American college experience.
Once I was done, I slid down and brought my plate back to the kitchen. I could hear their hushed conversation but not the words. Even so, I knew it was about me.
I cleaned up the kitchen a bit as a thank-you for the meal and then walked back to the doorway. Their conversation halted.
“Well, it’s been nice Mac Truck and Mr. Grumpy, but I’m outta here. I’ll catch you later.”
I grabbed my slouch handbag, my guitar, and my phone and headed out the door. I could feel their eyes on me when I got into my car and did a three-point turn to get around the black truck parked behind me, using the seagrass as a drive-way and probably leaving tire tracks where Dad wouldn’t want them.
I rolled down the windows, waved my hand, and drove toward town. They didn’t know, but “later” was going to be tonight when I needed a place to crash my head. I didn’t have a choice about it, but for now, they could think I was gone.
I MET A GIRL
“She turned around and
it felt like the world turned upside down
And the only thing I could say was "hey,"
and I'm so glad she didn't walk away”
—Performed by William Michael Morgan
—Written by Hunt / Mcanally / Rosen
We all watched in stunned silence as Ava did a remarkable move with her car in order to get out from in front of the truck and then drove off into the setting sunlight. The whole place felt quiet in a way that it hadn’t earlier. It felt like it was missing something. It wasn’t just the music that had disappeared with her phone. It was that Ava had brought something to life inside the place.
“Well, hell, that’s disappointing,” Mac said.
I kicked him under the table. “Don’t even think about it, dickwad.”
“Too late. Anyway, she’s gone,” Truck said with a smile.
“Last thing any of us needs to do is get in the middle of some goddamn fight between Abrams and his daughter. And we definitely don’t need him showing up here with her in any of our beds,” I said and cringed, knowing they wouldn’t let the “our" slide. And they didn’t.
Truck grinned at me. “Visualizing it too, oh Captain my Captain?”
Mac kicked me back under the table. “Even this priest couldn’t help but get his penis in a rise over her. Hell, you’d have to be dead not to respond to that.”
“Again. Off limits.”
“You can’t tell my dick how to behave, Captain Prude,” Mac continued to ride me.
I wasn’t a captain, and I certainly hadn’t been one when they’d started calling me Captain Prude. It wasn’t that I didn’t like girls or sex. I’d had great sex in my four years at A&M, but it wasn’t with random chicks that I picked up in a bar every time we were allowed out of our cages like these two bozos.
I wasn’t a relationship guy either, but I had a couple girls that seemed okay with being friends with benefits. It worked when we were all under a lot of pressure to perform academically and in the corps. Everyone needed to let off steam sometimes.
“I’m going to take a run on the beach.”
I left them drinking their beer and drooling over Ava in a way that was bugging the hell out of me for no reason that I could justify.
I changed and headed down to the sand where I beat a track as far south as I could before I headed back. It helped me get my head refocused on how close I was to getting what I wanted and not on a girl with dual-colored eyes. The Coast Guard was so close to being a reality that I could almost feel the joy of signing the enlistment contract. One more summer cruise. Two more semesters. Months away. Almost close enough to be able to count it down in days.
The humidity, even as the stars started coming out, was enough to have me dripping. We were used to it from doing runs in Galveston, but it never made it pretty. I stunk like I’d been out to sea for a week by the time I returned to find the assholes watching an old eighties flick, Goonies. Truck’s grandparents had owned a video store back when those were a thing, so he’d acquainted us with all the eighties and nineties classic movies during our time together in the dorms. If he wasn’t watching some old movie, he usually had the American History channel on.
“Shit, I could smell you from the stairs, Els-worth,” Mac said when the door swung shut behind me.
I shook my shirt out on him in response, and he jumped up, spilling his beer and screaming like a girl.
I chuckled as I headed down to the master suite and the shower with the two showerheads. Those two showerheads brought my dumbass male body right back to what I’d tried to escape: thoughts of a bright-eyed brunette with a lithe body and a sexy-as-hell mouth.
♫ ♫ ♫
I fell asleep somewhere around midnight with the French doors open and the sound of the ocean soothing me as it always did. There was no moon, and the house was far enough away from town and other residences that there was very little in the way of light pollution, so I could barely see my hand. It was like being below deck in the middle of a blackout.
When I woke, it was still dark, and I wasn’t sure what had jerked me from my sleep with an unsteady heartbeat. Then, I heard a quiet curse that had me sitting all the way up. I heard another movement from out in the great room and was at the door and down the hall before I could really process it.
I was silent as I moved.
What I found was a drunk Ava. She smelled, from across the room, like booze. She was standing on one foot while she held the other in her hand, rubbing her big toe. As I watched, she swayed and would have hit the wood floor if I hadn’t moved forward in a rush of movement.
I caught her, and she seemed as surprised as I was. As surprised as we both had been when I’d had my hands on her waist before dinner. The smell of her, like citrus and ocean, hadn’t escaped me then or now. It was hidden at the moment, underneath the mask of booze, but it was still there, calling to me in a way that I hated and loved simultaneously.
She giggled. Although, with her husky voice, it almost didn’t count as a giggle.
“Thanks,” she said. She pushed off me, her hand searing my bare chest. I had to force my hands away from her as she sank down on the nearby coffee table.
“You’re drunk.” It was a stupid statement. Obvious. And it sounded accusatory when I had no right to be. I didn’t know if I was upset that she had been out on her own, drunk, or if I was pissed that she was back and threatening everything that I held dear in my life.
She looked up at me, and I swear I could still see the difference in her eye color, even in the dark.
“And you’re in your boxers,” she said back.
Shit. I was. And tonight, I’d put on a ridiculous pair that my mom had sent me as a joke. I needed to do laundry.
“Are those Santa Claus-zes? Ses?” she asked with a slur and another chuckle.
“Did you drive back here?”
“No, Dad, I didn’t drive. I took a CarShare.”
I sighed, running a hand through the little stubble on top of my head that was longer than I could wear next week when I was back on duty.
“That’s hardly better, is it?” I asked. “Where the hell did you leave your car?”
She slurred her response. “God, you really are going to make a great father someday.”
It wasn’t the first time someone had said that to me, but it was the first time I didn’t know how to respond to it. A mix of emotions filled me from Ava saying it. I liked that I’d always had my head on straight. Focused. Living by the code of honor in the military before I ever became a true part of it. It was a way of honoring my dad. But a part of me ached at the thought of this free spirit seeing me as a father-like figure. Nothing was right about that. Not when my body was reacting to her like it was.
In fact, it was a fight to keep my body’s reaction from becoming visible in a way that I’d never had to fight it since high school and Becky Anderson.
She pushed herself up from the table and headed down the hall in a drunken walk. She bumped into walls and made so much noise that I was sure Mac and Truck were going to come out of their rooms ready to start a fight.
“Where are you going?” I asked as I followed her.
“To bed,” she said and entered the master suite.
“Not in here, you’re not.”
She was already on the bed, feet going under the sheet that was the only thing that I’d been using as a cover.
“Mac and Truck are in the other rooms, right?”
There was no need to confirm the obvious.
She had her head on the pillow that I’d been using. The king-sized bed was huge, and yet, somehow, she’d landed in the exact spot that I’d been lying in.
“Ava,” I said her name for the first time. It sounded strange. Throaty. Like a word I shouldn’t be saying.
Her eyes popped back open at her name, or the way I’d said it, or both. Those damn eyes stared at me. I had to fight off every nerve in my body that was demanding I jump into the bed beside her. Not that I’d ever sleep with a girl who was drunk. Not that I had any intention of sleeping with her. But Jesus, it was hard to ignore her.
I filled my head with visions of a contract on a table before me and a pen in my hand. That was what was real.
“There’s plenty of room, Mr. Grumpy.”
It sounded like an offer. An offer we both knew that I wasn’t going to accept. She patted the bed behind her as if to reemphasize her point.
“You won’t even know I’m here,” she continued.
There was no way in hell I was climbing into that bed. Just as there was no way in hell I wouldn’t know that she was there.
When I moved toward the bed, her lips curled up in a sly smile as if she actually expected me to join her. I reached over her and grabbed another pillow.
“Sleep good, drunkard, because tomorrow your sweet little ass is out of here.”
I saw surprise register in her eyes before I turned away. I grabbed my phone and my water from the nightstand and headed down the hall to the couch.
It was still more comfortable than my bunk on board the TS Kennedy would be. It was long enough for my tall frame, and with the French doors open, it provided me just about the comfort I’d had in the master bedroom.
Sleep evaded me, though. The thought that she’d been out on the town, alone and drunk, wouldn’t leave me. The possibilities of what could have happened to her in that state drove me nuts. The fact that she was here, in the house with the three of us, drove me nuts. My heart clenched at the thought of Abrams showing up with her in the bed…drunk.
Shit. She really needed to leave.
Eventually, when my phone finally showed four a.m., I just gave up. I slunk back into the bedroom. Ava was curled up in the exact place I’d left her, sheet wrapped in her hand, brilliant eyes shut, dark hair tumbling over the pillow and her face. Lying there, quiet, seemed contradictory to her nature. It seemed as odd as catching a hummingbird at rest instead of a flutter of wings you couldn’t even see.
I shook myself out of my reverie and turned to the dresser. I quietly pulled out a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, grabbed my tennis shoes from the floor, and headed back out to the main room.
I dressed in the kitchen and pulled out a mixing bowl, filling it with half the box of Frosted Mini-Wheats that I’d bought at the store. My brain was still on Ava in ways I couldn’t prevent.
Why was she here? Escaping a future she didn’t want, she’d said. But we didn’t live in the 1800s. It wasn’t like her father was setting her up to marry some fifty-year-old duke or anything. It was the twenty-first century. She could be anything she wanted. Unless he refused to pay for her college, and even then, she could find ways to pay for it herself.
I shook my head, trying to clear out the thoughts of her, and drifted down to the garage where I started setting up for our morning of painting. We’d have to mask off a lot of the windows and doors. It would probably be easier to do a side at a time. I figured we might be able to get through one side a day. Especially if I started as early as this.
It was six before Truck joined me. Our early hours as cadets were hard to shake. He handed me a cup of coffee. I nodded my thanks, and he looked at the work I’d already done in turning the house a deep teal color that reflected the ocean.
“You got a big start. What put the burr in your butt this morning?” he asked.
“Ava.” It still seemed strange to hear her name on my lips. Wrong and right and everything in between.
“Man, she twisted your dick up hard.”
I realized he still had no clue that she was inside, in the bed I’d chosen, threatening all of our careers by simply being there.
I punched him hard on the shoulder, and he cussed at me.
“Dude, she’s laying in my bed.”
And hell, that sounded equally right and wrong.
Truck’s smile increased to the size of the whole fricking state.
“Dude, Captain Prude stuck his dick in?”
“Asswipe, she came back drunk as a skunk. I slept on the couch. I’m surprised neither of you douchebags heard her come in.”
“I might have had one too many myself,” he admitted with a shrug as he rubbed his shoulder.
I’d already filled the spray gun twice by the time Mac saw fit to join us, and the backside of the house, top and bottom, was almost done by the time we caught sight of Ava. She was showered with her wet hair pulled up in a nest of a bun atop her head. She was wearing nothing but a red and white polka-dotted bikini. The three of us stood there, staring like the goons we were, as she came down the steps in her flip-flops with a beach chair, a towel, and a mesh bag in her hand.
She stopped by me first, her scent wafting over me again. She looked at the house, and I tried to ignore every thought I was having about her nearly naked body.
I forced myself to envision my contract. Signing the contract.
“Nice job, boys.” The deep quality to her voice kept catching me off guard. It crept down my spine, continuing to call my nerves to attention.
“I’m off to the beach. You know what John Kennedy said about it, right?”
We all continued to watch her without comment. “’We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, we are going back from whence we came.’ So I guess I’m off to join my past with my future.”
None of us responded. We were confused by her words and floored by her body and her confidence. It wasn’t like we hadn’t seen a sexy woman in a bikini before. It wasn’t like we hadn’t seen sexy women in our bedrooms completely naked, but there was something about Ava that dumbfounded us all.
Maybe it was her lack of discomfort at her almost nakedness, or her sureness in her own skin, or maybe the fact that she was stunning and completely off limits.
When none of us had responded, she just shook her head and headed down the cracked shell path to the dunes and the dock just behind the house.
Truck was the one to find his voice first. “I think it’s time to call it a day and hit the beach.”
They handed me their equipment and took off into the house. I sighed, cleaning up our mess, Ava’s words ringing in my head. I was tied to the sea, just like she’d said. It was my past and my future, too. Twelve years of hard work wasn’t going to be thrown away because of one intriguing nineteen-year-old.
I was still cleaning up when Mac and Truck had the nerve to walk by me in their own swim trunks with beach towels and a cooler in hand.
“Hey, assholes, thanks for leaving me with the cleaning.”
“Hey, shrunken penis, thanks for signing us up to paint the goddamn house at all,” Mac hollered back with a smirk that I wanted to wipe off his face.
An hour later, I had showered and changed into a clean pair of jeans. I was on the deck outside the master bedroom. I could hear faint laughter coming from the dock and the private beach that belonged to the Abrams property.
It was calling to me. In jealousy as much as desire. What were they saying that was making her laugh? Not that it seemed like she needed much to make her laugh. But Mac and Truck weren’t exactly a comedy team. They were all stupid male charm.
Anger flitted through me. At them. At her for even being here. As if to prove my point, my phone buzzed. It was my mom and, thankfully, not Professor Abrams. I just let it go to voicemail because I didn’t want Mom to hear in my voice all the things that were in my head.
My thoughts turned to what would happen if it really was Professor Abrams calling. I’d have to tell him she was here. I didn’t have another choice. If I lied, he could end my future.
Still, I heard Ava’s voice in my head about escaping a future that wasn’t hers. I understood wanting a future that you desired. I understood putting that first. She wasn’t exactly underage. If she didn’t want her dad to know where she was, what business was it of mine?
Regardless, I knew I’d tell him she was there. I had to make her see that it was best for everyone if she left.
I changed into a pair of my own swim trunks, made sandwiches in the kitchen for everyone, and then headed down to the beach. The three of them had beers in hand when I got there. Ava was sitting on top of a rock, her beach chair abandoned to Truck. Mac was juggling a football in one hand and his beer in the other.
“Dad! You decided to join us,” Ava called out.
This got both the guys’ attentions as they looked in panic up toward the path as if they expected Professor Abrams to actually be standing there—which was exactly my point. None of us would survive if he showed up. When they saw it was me, they both smirked their approval of Ava’s nickname.
“Dad, did you make us lunch?” Mac asked with a smile.
“Dude, you shouldn’t have,” Truck said.
As they both reached for the sandwiches, I pushed them off. “Buzz off, bugs. These are all mine.”
Ava’s laugh rang around me. “You really going to eat eight sandwiches?”
I shrugged and then smiled at her before offering her the stack when I should be starving her so she’d leave. Instead, I was goddamn feeding her. “Ham or turkey?”
“I’m not picky,” she responded. I hated that response. I wanted her to be extremely picky, but I just plucked one off the top and handed it to her before handing two to each of the other morons on the beach.
After we’d eaten in silence again, Mac, Truck and I hit the sand, tossing the football around while I tried to figure out what to say that would make her leave. Mac was showing off both his muscles and his prowess with the pigskin. If it was for Ava’s benefit, it was useless. She had her head in a notebook, pencil in hand, scribbling inside. She’d pause occasionally, sticking the pencil in her mouth while looking out at the ocean, and then go back at it with an eraser and then the tip again.
After quite a while, she smiled. Whatever she’d written pleased her. She stuck the pencil up into the mess of her bun and tossed the notebook onto the towel at her feet.
She bounded off the rock and approached Truck who had made the mistake of turning his back on her. She easily stole the football from him, twirled it in her hands as if it was something she did every day, and then tossed it back to him as she moved toward the ocean.
“Going in. Any of you Hulk wannabes think you can beat me to the buoy and back?”
She was in the water, striding out toward the buoy with strong, perfect motions like she did everything, before Truck dropped the football and raced after her. Mac was behind him in two breaths. I shook my head. They were going to kill themselves competing over her.
For some reason, it didn’t bother me the way it had the day before when they’d talked about sleeping with her or even when I’d been up on the deck listening to them on the beach. Maybe it was because, since I’d been on the sand with them, Ava had done nothing but treat them both like two big brothers. I hadn’t seen one moment of connection between her and them like the one that had zipped between us when we touched.
Which was the problem. Nothing should be between me and a girl who I’d known less than twenty-four hours and who was a bigger danger to my future than anything ever had been in my life. Even my mom’s disapproval of my career choices had never threatened my future in a way this one girl did.
I followed them into the water but didn’t even bother to join the race. Instead, I dove in, letting the calm waves of the bay drift around me. Once I was far enough out, I took a breath and sunk as far down as I could go with the waves pushing and pulling me.
I was under there a long time, thinking about my future. Thinking about Ava. Thinking about ways to get her to leave. Suddenly, a pair of muscled girl legs and pink toe-nailed feet landed before me. I pushed off the bottom and came up in front of her, the water spraying off me and all over her.
“I thought you drowned,” she said as I looked down into her eyes.
“I told you not to worry,” Truck hollered out at her from the buoy.
She flipped him the bird without ever taking her eyes off me.
“You were under there a long time,” she said quietly, eyes taking me in as if she was trying to get underneath my skin and understand every thought that was going on inside me.
She rolled her eyes. “Of course. Stupid cadet corps.”
“Why do you think it’s stupid?” I asked, not quite offended but something close. The Corps was not only my home, it was my future and my past twined together.
She shrugged. “I don’t, really. I mean, my experience is probably just tainted looking at it through my dad’s eyes.”
I reached out toward her, and she watched my hand almost like she had last night when I’d reached for the pillow. There was expectation and hesitation and something else in her eyes.
I pulled out the pencil she’d stuck into her bun. I wasn’t sure how it had survived the water and the swim, but it was still tangled there, and it took me a bit to remove it.
“I think you might have ruined your pencil.” I handed it to her, and she took it, her eyes still on mine as our fingers collided.
We stood like that, staring at each other, feeling the tangle of desire that was floating around us in almost the same way as the ocean was ebbing back and forth around our waists.
“You’re different from the rest,” she said quietly, eyes never leaving my face. Most people couldn’t maintain eye contact for that long. With Ava, it was like she purposefully extended every look, waiting for something in yours. It was intense and freeing at the same time.
“Nope. I’m just the same,” I told her truthfully. Just another cadet. Just another guy trying to get ahead in this crazy world.
Her pink lips turned up at the corners. One of the corners always tucked deeper into her cheek when she smiled like this. It was the reason I wanted to touch it. It was on the same side as her muddy green eye. Like they belonged together.
She turned away and started walking through the waves toward the shore. “Keep telling yourself that, Mr. Grumpy.”
I watched her as she made her way to the sand, untangling the bun on her head, shaking it out, her body and curves moving with the motion. She gathered all her belongings and headed up the path to the house.
Mac Truck joined me. We were all watching her again. It was like a repeat motion from every time she left us.
“She’s gonna give some guy a serious heart attack someday,” Mac said. I heard the tone in his voice with relief. He’d already thrown in the towel. If a girl was too much work, it was never Mac’s thing. He wanted quick, easy, and painless. He wanted to be in and done.
Truck smacked me on the back of the head, Gibbs style. We all did it to each other. It was one of our things. “I think Captain Prude might just be having his own heart attack over her.”
I rolled my eyes and slammed my fist into his shoulder, causing him to stumble in the water. But he was laughing and smiling. He’d thrown in the towel, too. Maybe because he could see the attraction that I felt and knew that I rarely got that way over a girl.
Truthfully, though, I’d never thrown my hand into the game. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t.
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...