“Looking for trouble, sailor?”
The husky female voice somehow floated above the din of Myer’s Pub, rising above the conversations and laughter, the sharp crack of pool balls and even the thumping bass of the rock song blaring from the corner jukebox.
Then again, Xander Bennett was a SEAL, one of the military’s elite. He’d been trained to notice what others miss. To be alert, always, and so in tune with his surroundings, he could predict what was going to happen before it occurred.
Or maybe it was because when it came to Quinn Oswald, he’d always been like a goddamn lapdog, hyperaware of where she was, what she was doing, and pathetically eager to be noticed, to be given any scrap of attention.
He turned, kept the move slow and easy, his expression clear. He’d known she was here. His sister, Kerri, had told him Quinn was back in their hometown and working at Myer’s. Plus, it’d been years—ten to be exact—since high school and his deeply hidden, long-seated infatuation with her. Seeing her now in this dim, cramped bar, being close enough to touch her, to breathe in her scent, shouldn’t affect him.
And it sure as hell shouldn’t feel like he’d taken the butt end of an AK-47 to the chest.
Then again, she’d always had the ability to steal his breath.
He dropped his gaze, took his time working his way from her high-heeled, short boots, up long, shapely legs encased in tight denim, over rounded hips and a narrow waist. Her black tank top ended at her belly button, baring two inches of flat stomach, before clinging to her ample breasts, the wide straps showing off her tanned shoulders and long neck.
And then he reached her face. Quinn Oswald had only improved with age.
She’d cut her hair. No longer did it fall to the middle of her back, but swung above her shoulders, the dark tresses a sharp contrast to the blue of her eyes. Her face had narrowed somewhat, making her high cheekbones more prominent, her mouth fuller.
Christ, but he used to fantasize about that mouth. About those lips wrapped around him.
His body stirred and as he watched, Quinn smiled, slow and confident. A woman certain in her ability to bring a man to his knees. A woman who knew what a man thought about when he looked at her. What he wanted.
He held her gaze. “Actually, it’s Lieutenant. And I don’t look for trouble.”
“No,” she said, thoughtfully, that knowing smile still playing on her lips. “You wouldn’t. Lieutenant.”
Xander narrowed his eyes. What the hell did that mean?
“But your brother,” she continued, lifting her chin toward the far corner of the bar. “Now, he’s a different story, isn’t he?”
He turned. Zane, his fraternal twin, sat with his back against the wall—all the better to protect himself and keep an eye on everything going on—nursing a beer and bullshitting with a couple of guys from high school. Catching Xander’s eye, Zane grinned and tipped his beer bottle in greeting.
Xander inclined his head in reply, then faced Quinn again. Zane, too, was a SEAL, but he was based out of Coronado while Xander was in Virginia. For the past ten years, family reunions were few and far between. And while getting a chance to spend some time with Zane—and the rest of their family—was the main reason he’d agreed to attend their class reunion, he was in no hurry to leave Quinn’s company.
“Zane doesn’t look for trouble, either,” Xander said.
“He doesn’t have to,” she murmured, still looking past him to Zane, definite interest in her gaze. “I bet it finds him anyway.”
It did. That was Zane. Always wanting to prove himself, ready and willing to go after whatever he wanted, no holds barred, while Xander was more patient. Content to take things as they came. To wait them out.
Usually. He was usually patient. Usually content to wait things out.
And he was never, ever jealous of his brother.
But he didn’t like being looked through—passed over. Not for any man. Especially not for Zane. Not from the girl he still dreamed about.
The one woman he’d always wanted.
He shifted forward, waited until she focused on him, the humor in her eyes—as if she was laughing at him—pricking his ego.
Poking his pride.
Leaning down so he could speak directly into her ear, he braced one hand on the bar behind her, inches from her arm. Close enough to see her eyes widen slightly, to catch her small, sharp inhale. “I don’t look for trouble,” he repeated, then eased back and let his gaze drop to that mouth of hers for one long moment before meeting her eyes again. “But I know how to handle it when it comes my way.”
Quinn raised an eyebrow—one of the many, many tricks she’d taught herself over the years—and maintained eye contact with Xander. She even managed a brief grin, just to prove how truly unaffected she was by his nearness. The intensity of his gaze.
There was only one teeny, tiny, irritating problem.
She couldn’t breathe.
No, really, it was as if he’d just, whoosh, sucked all the air out of the room, and possibly the entire building, with his words, the husky, sexy timbre of his voice.
Men. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.
Can’t ever, ever let them get the upper hand.
A reminder that gave her the wherewithal to tip her head and give him a slow, thorough once-over, much like he’d given her.
Like all men gave her.
It wasn’t a hardship. Xander Bennett had always been easy on the eyes. Supershort brown hair, clean-shaven with a sharp jaw and eyes more gold than brown, he was the poster child for the all-American boy next door.
If you liked that sort of thing.
She didn’t. Usually. But on Xander, it worked. It worked really, really well.
It was his nose, she decided. There was a slight bend to it—a bend that hadn’t been there in high school. One that suggested it’d been broken.
One that suggested there might just be more to him than meets the eye.
Despite the jeans, crisp button-down shirt and cowboy boots, he looked more soldier—or in his case, she guessed, sailor—than ranch hand out on the town. Tall with broad shoulders, he had a bearing about him that said not only could he handle trouble, easily, but that trouble would be smart to stay away from him in the first place.
Quinn hadn’t always been smart.
But those times, they were a-changin’.
“Just make sure any trouble you handle,” she said, “doesn’t happen at Myer’s. I’ve been warned about you.”
He eased back, allowing her to slip around him and go back behind the bar. Once there, with the safety of the wide, scarred wood between them, she took a deep, careful breath.
Better. Much, much better.
“You were warned about me?” he asked.
“We—” she gestured to Steve, the other bartender, then to Lila, the waitress “—were warned about you and your brother.” A customer held up his empty glass and she pulled him a fresh beer. “Guess Dianne is holding a grudge over that last ruckus you two caused in here.”
“We paid for the damages,” Xander said of what Dianne, Quinn’s boss and the owner of Myer’s, had described as a battle royale two years ago that had taken out four tables, six sets of chairs, three bar stools and the door to the women’s restroom, not to mention countless glassware. “And we didn’t cause it.”
“No? So you were innocent bystanders caught in the fray?”
“More like targets.” He lifted a shoulder. “A couple of guys wanted to prove they could take us on.”
Quinn exchanged the beer for money and picked up the customer’s empty glass. “And you wanted to prove they couldn’t?” She rolled her eyes. “Men. Such fragile egos.”
“I don’t have to prove anything,” he said, the quiet intensity, the way he held her gaze telling her he spoke the truth. “And my ego is just fine.”
“Yet you fought them anyway,” she said.
Another shrug. “Zane needed me.”
“Don’t tell me, the big, bad rebel turned bigger, badder SEAL couldn’t handle himself in a bar fight?”
“He can handle himself. But when that fifth guy jumped in, I thought I’d help even the odds.”
She shook her head. “Wait…you and your brother fought five other guys?”
“Something like that,” he said, all matter-of-fact, as if being outnumbered was nothing new.
Or anything to be worried about.
“Something like that?” she repeated. “So there were more?”
“You know Zane’s a SEAL?” he asked instead of answering—which told her all she needed to know. There’d been more than five other guys.
Seemed when Dianne told the story to her employees, she’d left out the best part.
“I—along with everyone in the city limits—know you both are.” Quinn took an order, poured rum into a glass then added cola. “Even all these years later, the Bennett boys are the talk of the town.”
The brothers both joined the military—Xander going the officer route through Annapolis, Zane enlisting—out of high school. And though they’d taken different paths, on opposite sides of the country, they’d both become SEALs, real-life American heroes.
“And now,” she continued, after handing the rum and cola to her customer, “you’re back for our illustrious ten-year high school reunion, where you and Zane will be honored for your service to our country and doing the old class proud.”
“You keeping tabs on us, Quinn?”
Her mouth dried at the sound of him saying her name, which was so crazy—not to mention unacceptable—she patted his hand, like he was an adorable little kid wishing for something far out of his range. “Now, don’t be getting delusions of grandeur, sailor.” Yes, she used the term instead of his rank to show she saluted to no man. And to get herself back on even ground. “Like I said, everyone knows. This is a small town, remember? Everyone knows everything about everyone.”
“That bothers you.”
She jerked, her fingers twitching on the back of his knuckles before she curled them into her palm and slid her hand away. Stupid of her to hope he hadn’t noticed her reaction. The man saw way more than the average Joe.
Way more than she wanted him to.
His gaze was steady and intense on hers, as if he had all night to stand here, as if he wanted nothing more than to get inside of her head. To figure her out.
She knew better.
Men didn’t want inside her head. They wanted in her pants.
As for figuring her out…any curiosity they might have about her, about who she really was, what she wanted, her hopes and dreams and ambitions, fell by the wayside once they accomplished their first goal.
So she let them see only what she wanted them to see.
And told herself she no longer wished for more.
“I’m an open book. A busy one,” she said pointedly, grabbing a bottle of the beer his brother was drinking. She opened it and set it in front of Xander. “On the house. A thank-you for your service.” When he didn’t take it, she slid it even farther toward him. “Enjoy your evening.”
Not quite as blatant as if she’d just told him he was dismissed, but pretty close.
He got the not-so-subtle hint and picked up the bottle. Hesitated as if he didn’t want to leave. Didn’t want to walk away from her.
But he would. They all did eventually.
Which was why she’d learned to do the walking first.
“It was real good seeing you again, Quinn,” he said quietly before turning and making his way toward his brother and their high school cronies.
He didn’t look back.
And she’d lick a bar stool before admitting to anyone—even herself—how much she’d wanted him to.
Or that it’d been good seeing him, too.