Desperate to ditch her ex once and for all, when Aspen Mesmer asks a complete stranger to kiss her, she never expects to feel an immediate connection. Despite already dealing with one soldier she can’t shake, Aspen would be a fool to ignore the intense chemistry she shares with the Delta Force operative. Even better, he shows her the respect few others offer in her male-dominated profession. It’s clear she’ll never have the camaraderie she craves with her own platoon, but maybe…just maybe…she’ll find it with Kane and his team.
Kane “Brain” Temple isn’t the kind of man most women look at twice, so when Aspen makes her interest clear after their impulsive, explosive kiss, he’s thrilled. As a combat medic attached to a Ranger team, Aspen is pretty impressive in her own right. She might be one of the few women who can not only handle Brain’s frequent deployments, but understand exactly how dangerous his missions can be. Bonus: she’s not turned off by his nerdy tendencies. It’s as if Aspen was made just for him.
Her ex disagrees. He’s not handling Aspen’s rejection well, or her deepening relationship with Brain. Being thrown over for a Delta is humiliating, and he’ll do anything to make her regret it.
** Shielding Aspen is the 3rd book in the Delta Team Two Series. Each book is a stand-alone, with no cliffhanger endings.
Release date: October 20, 2020
Publisher: Susan Stoker
Print pages: 350
Reader says this book is...: strong chemistry (2) strong heroine (2) happily ever after (1) heartwarming (1) terrific writing (1)
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Brain sat back in his chair in the bar and watched as Aspen Mesmer completely charmed his friends. He hadn’t wanted to come out tonight. He’d wanted to wallow in self-pity about his lack of a love life. Thank God he’d dragged himself to the bar at the last minute.
If he hadn’t, he would’ve missed meeting Aspen. And what a first meeting it was.
After walking into the bar, one second he’d been looking around for the guys, and the next, a woman was walking straight toward him with a nervous yet determined look on her face. He had time to appreciate the fact that she was almost as tall as he was—about five-nine or so—and probably around his same age as well. She wore a pair of black jeans that clung to her body in intriguing ways, Converse sneakers, and a T-shirt that said, “Will give medical advice for tacos.”
Brain was shocked when she walked right into his personal space and put her arms around his shoulders.
“I’ll give you twenty bucks if you kiss me right now like you mean it.”
Her voice was husky, and Brain could swear he heard desperation. He didn’t have time to say he’d happily kiss her, but not for money, when she put her hand on the back of his head and moved in.
At first their kiss had been awkward, merely a mashing together of their lips. But then Brain wrapped an arm around the woman’s waist and took a step forward, bending her backward. She gasped in surprise and switched her hold from around his neck to latch onto his biceps.
Brain took advantage of her mouth opening, changed the angle of their lips just slightly and kissed her as he hadn’t kissed a woman in a very long time. Long, slow, and deep. The little moans she made weren’t helping him stop anytime soon either. He could tell she was muscular and strong, but at the moment, tilted backward, she was completely helpless in his arms. And he liked it a hell of a lot.
“All you had to do was tell me you’d moved on, Aspen,” an irritated voice said from behind her.
The woman licked her lips and sighed in frustration. Brain saw her mouth “sorry” to him before she cleared the emotion from her face and turned to confront the man behind her. She wrapped an arm around Brain’s waist, and he had no problem tugging her against his side.
“I did tell you, Derek. I told you a month ago when I broke up with you. I told you at least three times over texts. And I told you again tonight when you showed up here, begging me to get back together. I’ve moved on. It’s time you do the same.”
The man looked to be in his mid-thirties, and the pout on his face definitely wasn’t doing him any favors. But it was the glimmer of pure, unadulterated anger in his eyes that made Brain nervous.
“When did you meet him? I mean, you’re training with the Rangers every day.”
“We’ve known each other a while,” Aspen lied.
Knowing things could get awkward very quickly, Brain held out his hand toward the other man. “Name’s Kane Temple. But people call me Brain.”
Derek looked in disgust at the hand Brain was holding out to him then frowned at Aspen. “Brain? Seriously?”
She merely shrugged.
“Fine. I hope you aren’t going to come crawling back to me when he breaks your heart,” Derek bit out.
“I won’t,” Aspen told him perkily.
“I think it’s time you run along,” Brain told the other man, annoyed he wasn’t taking the hint.
When Derek opened his mouth to say something he’d probably regret, Brain was done. He wrapped an arm around Aspen’s shoulders and tugged her closer. “Come on, baby, I see my friends. I’m sure they’ve saved us some seats.” Then he walked away from the heartbroken—and pissed—man and steered Aspen toward his teammates.
“Thank you so much, and I’m so sorry for involving you in that,” she said. “But he wouldn’t leave me alone and the only thing I could think to do was give him concrete evidence that I’d moved on.” She started to reach for the small purse strung across her body.
“If you even try to pay me for that kiss, I’m gonna be pissed,” Brain told her.
She froze and looked at him with wide eyes.
“How about we start over?” Brain asked. He took a step back and held out his hand. “I’m Brain.”
“Aspen Mesmer,” she said, grasping his hand with her own.
Brain shook it, then brought it up to his lips and kissed the back.
“You really don’t have to hang out with me, I’m sure he’s gone,” Aspen said.
“Don’t be scared of me,” Brain ordered, not liking the nervous look in her eyes.
Her shoulders straightened and she stood taller. “I’m not scared of you.”
Brain had liked that answer.
He hadn’t expected to walk into the bar and have a beautiful woman beg him to kiss her. Even if it was only to get an ex-boyfriend off her back, it wasn’t a hardship. The woman was lovely.
Aspen had light brown shoulder-length hair and chocolate-brown eyes. She wasn’t wearing much makeup, maybe some lip gloss and something on her eyes. Brain wasn’t an expert in women’s cosmetics, but he knew he didn’t like it when it looked like a chick’s face was caked in the stuff. Since they were similar heights, he loved that he could look her in the eyes, and he even liked the slight wrinkles at their edges, letting him know she probably smiled and laughed a lot.
Overall, Aspen looked like the girl next door…which Brain loved.
He’d brought her over to his friends not only for show, in case her ex hadn’t actually left the bar and instead was watching her, but also because he was genuinely interested in getting to know the intriguing woman. She’d been bold and confident, but also nervous and wary when she’d approached him. The contradiction was captivating. She’d gotten his attention for sure.
“So you’re a combat medic?” Trigger asked Aspen. He had his arm around Gillian and, for the first time in a very long time, Brain didn’t get a twinge of jealousy when he saw them together. It wasn’t that he wanted Gillian for himself; she and Trigger were made for each other. It was more that he wanted what his teammate had. Someone who looked at him as if he were the sun in her sky.
“Yup,” Aspen said with a nod. “For the last several years I’ve been attached to various Ranger units.”
Oz whistled low. “Not an easy job,” he observed.
Aspen smiled. “No, it’s not.”
Kinley leaned forward, and Brain saw Lefty’s hand resting on the small of her back, keeping that small connection between them. “Forgive my ignorance, but you’re a Ranger?” she asked.
Aspen shook her head. “No. I haven’t been through Ranger School, but I have participated in training sessions with them.”
Brain had already been impressed with the woman, but upon hearing that, he was even more so. He could tell by the looks on his teammates’ faces that they were too. Gillian and Kinley probably weren’t sure what Aspen meant, though. He decided to enlighten them.
“What she means is she probably could be a Ranger if she wanted. Their training sessions aren’t as long as Ranger school, but they’re just as intense. Days without food, crawling through forests and rivers trying to stay undetected. And I’m assuming, as their medic, you were tasked along the way with making sure your team stayed hydrated, that any blisters or other minor wounds were taken care of, and generally had to keep them operating at one hundred percent, all while attempting to take care of yourself at the same time, yeah?”
Aspen blushed and simply shrugged. “All part of the job.”
The more Brain got to know the attractive medic, the more he liked her. He could still remember how she’d trembled in his arms when he’d taken the kiss deeper, and how she’d looked at him afterward. Not in awe that he was a Delta operative. But as a woman looked at a man she wanted.
Knowing he wasn’t exactly being nonchalant, Brain reached out and intertwined his fingers with hers. She looked at him and raised an eyebrow, but didn’t pull away.
Taking that as a win, Brain simply smiled at her and reached out with his free hand to take a sip of the water he’d started drinking after finishing a beer. He wanted to be completely clearheaded tonight. Wanted to remember every second.
“Is it hard being a woman and working with such a traditionally male-dominated group like the Rangers?” Gillian asked.
Aspen sighed. “Yes and no. I mean, I take my share of ribbing, but for the most part, it’s done in jest. There are, of course, those men who don’t think I should be attached to the Rangers in any way, shape, or form, but when the shit hits the fan, bullets are flying, and people are dying, no one seems to care much about the fact I’m a woman.”
“Who are you working with now?” Brain asked.
Aspen turned to him again, and when her brown eyes met his, he saw slight distress there. It was only for an instant because she hid it quickly, but even that quick glimpse made Brain want to seriously hurt anyone who dared make Aspen’s life uncomfortable. He didn’t know why he felt so protective of her, but he did.
“I’m attached to a team of about eight guys. Derek is best friends with the sergeant in charge of my team.”
“Derek, the asshole who can’t take a hint?” Brain asked.
Aspen winced. “Yeah. It was stupid to go out with him in the first place, especially considering how close he is to the guys I work with, but he was pretty insistent, and he’d stuck up for me when some of the other guys were giving me crap. In a moment of weakness, I said yes. But within two dates, I realized we weren’t compatible.”
“And he didn’t realize the same thing?” Kinley asked. “I mean, generally the spark is either there or it isn’t.” She glanced at Lefty and gave him a small smile.
“I guess not,” Aspen said with a shrug. “I tried to be clear that I wanted to keep him as a friend but anything more was off the table, and he didn’t exactly take the hint…until tonight. Hopefully.”
The more Brain thought about why she’d had to walk up to a complete stranger and beg for a kiss, the angrier he got. No woman should have to resort to that sort of thing just to get a guy off her back. No meant no, and this Derek was a grade-A asshole to keep harassing her after she’d said she just wanted to be friends.
Brain tuned back into the conversation around him when Aspen said, “And he was the kind of guy who always had to be right.”
“Oh my God!” Gillian exclaimed. “I know exactly what you mean!”
Brain sat back listening to the women chat, trying to rein in his anger. It was surprising; he’d never really had much of a temper before, but the thought of someone being a dick to Aspen ticked him off. She could very obviously take care of herself, but the feeling was still there.
“Like, if you say it’ll take two hours to get somewhere, he has to disagree and say it’ll take two hours and fifteen minutes,” Gillian went on.
“Or if I suggested he cook something for twenty minutes, he’d tell me I was wrong and it’s actually seventeen and a half minutes, otherwise it’s overdone,” Aspen agreed.
“Or a show’s on at eight-thirty, not eight,” Kinley chimed in.
“Or when I say a twenty-milligram slow IV push of ketamine over one minute is the proper protocol, he has to contradict me and say that fifty milligrams is correct, when I know for a fact that’s only if it’s being given intranasally,” Aspen said with a laugh.
When everyone simply looked at her in confusion, she blushed, but laughed even harder. “Sorry, sorry, sorry. I forget that not everyone is as into narcotics as I am. I mean, not into them as in doing them recreationally, but as interested in them…uh… Shit. Um…or when I say that Mayor Larry Kline in the show Stranger Things was the Dread Pirate Roberts in The Princess Bride, and he tells me I’m wrong.”
At that, everyone laughed.
Brain thought Aspen was fucking adorable. He made a mental note to try not to contradict her under any circumstances. He watched as she, Gillian, and Kinley laughed and joked together, and it made him feel good that they were getting along. Despite just meeting Aspen a few hours ago, he felt more comfortable with her than he had with any woman in a long time.
He still held her hand in his, and every now and then rubbed his thumb over the back of it, just to let her know he was still there. And every time, a small smile formed on her face, even if she didn’t acknowledge him in any other way.
Looking up, Brain caught Trigger’s eye. The other man gave him a small chin lift and lifted his glass in a subtle salute. Brain rolled his eyes and shook his head, but Trigger simply smiled.
It was hard to believe a few hours ago, Brain was trying to think of reasonable excuses to leave early, and now he dreaded every tick of the minute hand on the clock because it meant he was another minute closer to having to say goodbye to Aspen. He was enjoying getting to know her and watching her interact with the people who were closest to him.
After another hour or so, Lefty and Kinley were the first ones to call it a night. Trigger and Gillian weren’t too far behind. Then Oz and Lucky headed out. And Doc. Until it was just Grover, Brain, and Aspen left.
“So…” Aspen said. “Grover? Brain?”
“My last name is Groves,” Grover explained.
“So it has nothing to do with the little blue Muppet?” Aspen teased.
“No,” Grover said with a shake of his head. “Do I really look like a Muppet? Or sound like one?”
She giggled. “No, but I know there’s always a story behind nicknames. Besides, Grover is the coolest Muppet there is. He doesn’t get enough press time or enough toys and shit made in his likeness. And you could be named Elmo, now that would be embarrassing.”
They all chuckled.
“And you, Kane? Brain?”
He shrugged, not sure he wanted to tell her the reason behind his nickname. He wasn’t exactly embarrassed about it, but for once in his life, he wanted to not be the nerd. Wanted to be a badass Delta Force soldier.
But of course, Grover was more than happy to explain.
“He’s a fucking genius,” Grover said, oblivious to the frown Brain was shooting his way. “He knows over two dozen languages. He’s some kind of language savant. And I swear to God, he can hear someone say something once and he understands it. Comes in very handy in our line of work, I can tell you that.”
Brain took another sip of water and refused to meet Aspen’s gaze. Inevitably, when he met people and they learned what he could do, they either wanted a demonstration—meaning, they wanted him to rattle off all sorts of things in different languages—or they mentally backed off, thinking he was out of their league.
He tried to loosen his fingers from hers, but she tightened her grip, not letting go. In surprise, he finally looked over at her.
“That’s cool,” she said quietly.
Grover kept talking, oblivious to Brain’s discomfort with the topic.
“He graduated from high school at age fifteen. Went to college right after that and got his first degree in two years. His parents were pissed that he joined the Army; they wanted him to be a rocket scientist or something.”
“Grover?” Aspen said without looking away from Brain.
Brain couldn’t help it. He laughed...
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