Authors: Tessa Bailey,Sophie Jordan
New York Times
“Beck and Kenna” © 2015 by Tessa Bailey.
All rights reserved. No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from Bradford Literary Agency; the agency can be reached at
“Huntley and Cullen” © 2015 by Sharie Kohler.
All rights reserved. No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from Don Congdon Associates, Inc.; the agency can be reached at
Cover design by Kim Killion of The Killion Group.
BECK & KENNA
All hail the world’s shittiest welcoming committee.
Kenna Sutton sat at the stoplight, chipped red nails drumming on the steering wheel.
Come on. Change.
She could feel the car full of soldiers to her left trying to get her attention. On a typical day, she would rev the engine of her baby blue Dodge Challenger, invite them to a race they would inevitably lose. But she was late—
late—to pick up one of their brethren. A soldier returning this morning from a staggering six years overseas, whose family was apparently too busy to greet him. So how had this landed on her shoulders? Just another perk of being Lieutenant General Sutton’s daughter.
“Forget this,” she muttered, stamping her foot down on the accelerator and screeching through the red light. Only one mile to go until she reached the landing zone. This last-minute favor to her father might be a pain in the ass, but she refused to let him down. She’d already done enough letting down to last a lifetime, and it was rare that he entrusted her with anything of importance, so she wouldn’t screw it up. Too badly.
Her knowledge of the man she’d been tasked with transporting to the barracks began and ended with one fact: he was some kind of strategic mastermind. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. She knew his name and rank. Major Beck Collier’s skill set must be something special, because he’d made himself indispensable to the Army. Six years’ worth of indispensable. And not one familiar face to latch on to when he landed.
Kenna swallowed the unexpected wave of sympathy and took a hard right, smiling as her tires squealed. The only benefit to waking up at the crack of dawn to pick up the stuffed-shirt geekster she envisioned was a chance to drive her baby. Listen to the engine purr like a contented leopard. With a wave of troops returning home, the winding roads of Fort Black Rock shouldn’t have been empty, which meant the visitors were already at the site.
She slowed down just in time to prevent bottoming out as she pulled into the parking lot. The first available space she saw was at the very perimeter of the lot, but she was way too late to be choosey. Seconds after she threw the Challenger into park, she’d snatched up her makeshift sign that simply read
, and was jogging across the parking lot, her heavy Dirty Laundry combat boots pounding on the asphalt.
Running on a Sunday. Fucking obscene.
Car windows had been decorated with painted flags and the names of soldiers in big, bold letters.
In the distance, she could hear a marching band playing “God Bless America,” making her slow to a walk. The Fort Black Rock marching band was notoriously terrible, and the longer she put off being in their vicinity, the better.
A uniformed guard stopped her at the chain-link fence. “Need to see your identification, ma’am.”
He must be new.
That wasn’t arrogance talking, although God knew she had a healthy dose of the stuff. She’d lived on base since birth and people—namely men—tended to know her. They didn’t call her a cocktease behind her back for blending in, did they? With a sigh, she tugged the wallet from her back pocket and tossed it to the guard, popping a stick of mint gum into her mouth as he looked it over. She knew the exact moment he recognized her last name because his eyebrows disappeared into his helmet. “I’m sorry, Miss Sutton. Go right in.”
“You’re a gem.” Kenna walked into the airfield, pushing her wallet back into the pocket of her jeans as she went. A group of photographers and journalists blocked her view at first, but as soon as she breached the human wall they’d created, she saw the soldiers disembarking from the plane. Men carrying Army-green duffel bags over their shoulders strode into the arms of crying women. Babies were kissed. Photos were taken. Proposals were made on bended knee. It was enough to warm the blackest of hearts. Even hers, apparently.
Feeling the odd spark in her chest, Kenna looked away quickly, wincing as the marching band struck up their awkward rendition of “Wild Blue Yonder.” Wasn’t that song reserved for the Air Force? Holding the homemade sign above her suddenly aching head, she made her way to the greeting area, scoping the sea of soldiers for an older gentleman by himself. Strategic masterminds probably wore thick-rimmed glasses, had pasty skin…maybe a slight paunch from too many hours in front of a computer, right? The second she dropped him off at the barracks, he’d probably dive on the first available video game controller. Didn’t matter to her. She’d already be back in bed, finishing her Sunday the way she’d originally intended. Counting sheep.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” a gravelly voice said behind her. “Are you my ride?”
Before she turned around to face the
guy to ma’am her in less than five minutes, intuition started to creep in. Little prickles danced on the back of her neck as she pivoted. And locked eyes on the broadest chest she’d ever seen. It was easily as wide as two of her, and then some. The patch on his right pec read
. She tilted her head back…and back…straight up into twin blue beacons of
. His eyes outshone the sky outlining his shaved dark-blond head. Put it to shame.
What are you now, a poet? Get your jaw off the floor.
Kenna hated surprises unless she was the one delivering them. She’d been expecting someone who might have a poster of Neil deGrasse Tyson on his wall. Instead, she’d gotten an NFL quarterback. He might have been a linebacker, if it weren’t for his distinct All-American, good-ol’-boy, Kenny Chesney-listening, Levi’s-wearing, mama’s-home-cooking-eating vibe. It was louder than the goddamn marching band.
“Depends.” She let her gaze drop to his tree-trunk-sized thighs under the pretense of adjusting her sunglasses. “Are you Major Beck Collier?”
His grin was a mile wide. “At your service, ma’am.”
Good god. What was that accent? Georgia? Definitely the south. “Look, dude. Anytime you want to stop
-ing me would be swell.”
Smile slipping, he nodded as if she’d imparted life-saving instructions. “Is there something I can call you instead?”
Hold the phone. This guy didn’t even know her name. Which meant…he didn’t know she was Lieutenant General Sutton’s daughter? When walking around base, she might as well wear a flashing neon sign that said
looky no touchy
. And oh, they
. She made sure of it. But on the rare occasion a man actually approached, he was clued in pronto about whose loins she’d sprung forth from. Kenna had no intention of taking advantage of True Blue, being that he was the furthest thing from her type as one could get. But at least she wouldn’t be treated like
Kenna, Spawn of Sutton
, throughout the drive.
“I’m Kenna. Welcome back and whatnot.” Suddenly at a loss without her name to precede her, she gestured to the canvas bag on the ground. “Do you need help with that?”
His expression was one of horror. “No, ma’am—
. I can manage.” He shifted on his size-nine-hundred feet. “Do you need help with anything?”
She looked around. “Like what? Walking?”
Unbelievable. This handsome, hulking man actually turned a little red. “Just in general, I guess.” He gave a little head shake. “You’ll have to pardon me. I haven’t been around a woman for a while. You caught me a little off guard, is all. I didn’t expect—”
He appeared to be struggling with the effort to keep his gaze above her neck. Which was a huge feat, considering she wore a leather bustier and skintight, low-rise jeans that left several inches of her belly exposed. Honestly, her boobs were looking at
. Anyone with a penis should have returned the favor by now and usually did. Without fail. His Adam’s apple slid up and down. “Can we start over?”
“Nope. What didn’t you expect?”
Beck’s blue eyes fell to hers, then looked away again. Anywhere but
her. “I guess I…” He cleared his throat. “I didn’t expect my ride to be so beautiful she makes my stomach hurt. I didn’t expect that.” He ducked his head and breezed past her, toward the parking lot, while Kenna stood frozen to the pavement.
* * *
Five minutes back on US soil and you’ve already made a jackass out of yourself.
Beck hefted his bag higher on his shoulder, refusing to acknowledge the pain that ripped through his right side. Or maybe he
acknowledge it. Focus in on the wound’s discomfort, let it spread down to his toes. It might take his mind off the girl he could hear jogging to catch up with him. Should she really be jogging in that shirt? Could one even
it a shirt?
Mind your manners.
Beck slowed down until they were walking side by side, but kept his gaze resolutely on the parking lot ahead. Didn’t it figure the good Lord would test him the moment he landed? He’d been warned the transition back to civilian life wouldn’t be easy. Learning how to grocery shop, buying sneakers, eating at Denny’s. He could—
—handle those things. But five tempting feet of female curves and attitude? No, sir. Beck wasn’t quite ready for that.
For the first time, he regretted not asking his twin sister, Huntley—a nurse on base—to pick him up. Or his best friend, Cullen, who worked on base training soldiers in explosives and demolition. Both of them would have dropped everything at a moment’s notice. He’d just needed some time. Time to wrap his mind around being home for the first time in six years. Time to prepare himself for the news he would impart. Time to accept that everything had changed.
Kenna’s smoky incense scent might as well have been a wrench twisting in his gut. He didn’t have firsthand knowledge of what those ancient gypsy women who sold magic smelled like, but he reckoned it was similar to Kenna. The keyword being
, because he somehow knew her scent couldn’t be replicated on another woman.