Below the Belt (First to Fight #1)
Athletic trainer Marianne Cook is ready to do whatever it takes to turn the men of the Marine Corps boxing team into fighting machines. After all, her ultimate goal is to land a job training professional athletes. But when she notices a certain hard-bodied marine trying to hide an injury, Marianne realizes that she’ll have to use covert tactics to get him talking.
First Lieutenant Brad Costa has waited years for the chance to fight for a spot on the Marine Corps boxing team, knowing he has to push twice as hard to get half as far as his younger counterparts. Brad tries to downplay his injuries to the attractive trainer who has his dreams in her hands, but Marianne isn’t buying it. Maybe it’s time to deploy some targeted flattery.
As Brad and Marianne’s attraction turns red-hot, there’s more than one person having a hard time keeping their eyes on the prize…
First Lieutenant Bradley Costa tossed his pack on the bed and sank to the mattress beside it. Fucking hell, what had he walked himself into?
Best—and most terrifying—opportunity of his life, that’s what. He stood and shook his hands, a habit he’d yet to break, to release the nerves. He couldn’t let it get to him, or else he’d be screwed before he hit the gym the first day of training camp.
A knock at his open door jarred him from his self-induced pity party. He turned and saw a guy holding his own ruck, wearing the similar civilian “uniform” of khakis and a button-down polo shirt he’d worn on his own trip to Camp Lejeune.
“Hey, you Costa?”
“Yeah.” Brad strode over to shake the outstretched hand. “You Higgs?”
“One and the same.” The other man grinned, then squeezed a little in friendly warning before letting go. He was an inch or two shorter than Brad, more wiry built. But there was strength in the grip, and Brad didn’t doubt the man could likely run circles around an opponent. Pushing past Brad, Higgs walked in and observed the tiny room, nodding in acceptance. “Seems we’re lucky roomies while we’re here.”
“Seems like.” Brad watched him warily. “I’ve claimed this one, yours is that way.” What the hell was this guy doing? The small single bedrooms of the BOQ were connected by a tiny sitting room and shared bathroom. Obviously, this was his room.
Making himself at home, Higgs tossed his pack next to Brad’s on the bed and sat in the chair. “I like company.”
Oh good. He got the Chatty Cathy for a roommate. He could wait it out. He went to his own ruck and started unpacking.
“So you think you’ll be here awhile, huh?”
God, he hoped so. He glanced up as he organized the top drawer with his workout gear. “Wouldn’t have made the trip otherwise.”
“I’m not big on packing, myself.” Higgs stretched and laced his fingers over his stomach. “I figure I’ll just leave things the way they are for now. See if I like the set up. If not, easier to ditch and go if my shit isn’t spread out from here to kingdom come.”
Brad snorted. “What, like you’re just going to walk away from this if you don’t like how it’s playing out?”
“Why not? Life’s too short to do shit you don’t like.”
Brad’s hands tightened into fists around the top drawer. He’d tried for years, nearly a decade, to get the chance to come to training camp for the Marine Corps boxing team. Had been working for the goal—even just indirectly—since watching his father compete at age six. For the next twenty-three years, the goal had been at the top of his bucket list. And this moron was willing to just walk away from the opportunity?
And yet, if he did, it was one less fucker Brad had to step over to make it onto the team. He shut the drawer and shrugged. “Probably right.”
Higgs watched him for a minute, then snorted and stood. Most likely disappointed Brad didn’t invite him to stay and paint their toenails and gossip about boys. As Higgs grabbed his bag, he said, “A bunch of the guys who arrived today are heading down to Back Gate.
Back Gate, as anyone knew who had been stationed at Lejeune, was a well-known bar frequented by Marines in their off time. Ironically enough, it was accessed the easiest from the main gate. “Okay then.”
Training day one started at oh-seven hundred tomorrow morning. And these jokers were heading out to get wasted the night before?
“Oh yeah, I’ll come. I’ll even drive.”
He wouldn’t miss the train wreck for the world.
Marianne Cook slid into one of the remaining booths at the Back Gate, and wondered why, God why, had she agreed to meet here for drinks with her mother again?
That’s right, because her mother was boy-crazy. The woman—half her namesake—was nearly sixty, and still got giggly around hot men young enough to be her sons, if she’d had sons. So meeting in a bar where Marines hung out after hours was, quite frankly, Mary Cook’s idea of a perfect night out.
Fortunately, her father was not only aware of Mary’s boy-craziness, but found it amusing. And since her mother would never even consider cheating on her father, Marianne found the entire thing amusing as well.
Until she was an unwilling accomplice.
The server stopped by, a little harried and definitely short on patience, and took Marianne’s simple order of a bottle of light beer and an ice water and left. Knowing her mother, she’d be zooming in about twenty minutes late. The water would make the beer last longer. Only one, since she would be driving home.
A shout, a few jeers and a male insult erupted from the bar area. She glanced over for a moment. Nothing much to see. A group of Marines doing that weird man thing where harassment passes off as bonding time. Add in a few beers and it just cranks the volume up. Nothing she hadn’t seen before. Though she’d missed the sight since she moved down to Wilmington for college, then her first post-grad job.
And, she realized with a smug smile as the server wordlessly delivered her beer and water, nothing she wouldn’t be seeing up close and personal for a few months, at least. She picked up the glass of water when her mother breezed in.
“Sorry, I’m late, I know.” Mary slid in the booth in front of her. Before Marianne could lift the water, her mother snatched it from her hand and took a gulp. “Better.”
“I’m glad,” Marianne said dryly, taking the water from her mother and having a sip for herself. “What held you up this time?”
“Myself, of course. Then I was late leaving, and Western was a parking lot.” Mary patted her hair, a mix of silver and blonde much like Marianne’s just plain blonde. Where her mother kept her hair longer—eschewing tradition of cutting it shorter as she got older—Marianne had chopped hers off to a short bob in college. They shared the same icy blue eyes though. “Had to spruce up a bit, didn’t I?”
“So you could turn all the men’s heads.” Marianne smiled and shook her head while her mother gave her order—a glass of wine—to the server when she buzzed by. “Daddy’s a tolerant man.”
“My favorite kind. As long as I come home to him at the end of the night, he never considered it a big deal to flirt. There’s never harm in flirting with a cute young man.” Mary’s light eyes laughed as she took another sip of water from her daughter’s glass. “I thought I taught you that.”
“Among other things.” Marianne waited for the server to plop her mother’s sub-par wine down and scoot away before saying, “I got all settled into the apartment. Still have a few more boxes to get to, but I should be done with those tonight.”
“I’m so glad you’re back in town.” Her mother took a sip and grimaced. “This is awful.”
“You picked the location,” she reminded her mother, taking a sip of the much safer selection of bottled beer. “And you remember I’m only here for awhile, right? I’m not moving back to Jacksonville permanently.”
“But you’re here for now. And that makes both of us happy.” Mary laid a hand on her daughter’s arm, and Marianne couldn’t help but smile back. She loved her parents, adored them. She knew she was fortunate to have been raised by people who taught her a love of independence tempered by a healthy dose of respect for those who reared you.
“I know. But if this job leads to bigger and better things…” She shrugged. No big deal.
Except it was. That was the entire reason she’d left her old job, taken the chance and moved back to Jacksonville. It was the opening to making her dreams come true.
“I think if you—oh!” Mary grabbed for her wine glass as something jarred their table. But her flushed, slightly annoyed look smoothed into sweet cream and dimples when she looked up and found a handsome young Marine standing before their table. And there was no doubt he was a Marine. They were impossible to miss. His dark, almost black hair was in a razor-sharp high and tight, his face baby-smooth, and he was wearing the unofficial off-duty uniform of a clean polo shirt and nice jeans.
“Sorry ladies.” He grinned lopsidedly, dark eyes lighting up, and Marianne instantly knew he was, if not drunk, well on his way to becoming so. “Didn’t mean to bump the table.”
“It’s fine.” Marianne smiled briefly then turned to her mother, who was smiling not-so-briefly.
“Totally understandable. It’s just so crowded in here, isn’t it?” Mary played with the thin gold band necklace she wore every day, her own patented flirtatious gesture. Marianne rolled her eyes into her water glass.
“Maybe it was just the sight of two such beautiful sisters,” the younger man said with a cheeky grin.
Marianne tried not to laugh, she really did. But a snort worked its way up. Seriously. The guy was twelve. Okay fine, twenty-one, max. But boy did he have some good, classic lines. Her mother glared.
“Ignore my sister,” Mary said firmly.
“Oh, please,” Marianne muttered.
“Can I buy you ladies another round to apologize?” He motioned a hand toward the sliver of bench left by Marianne, silently asking if he could also have a seat. She ignored the gesture and looked straight ahead, past her mother’s shoulder.
Seriously. Hot Marines. Been there, done that. Okay, not done that, done that. That sounded wrong. But you couldn’t grow up in Jacksonville and not have had a teenage fantasy or two about the constant influx of good looking, uniform-wearing hotties driving through the front gate every morning. Naturally, if she’d actually dated any of them during her teens, her father would have killed her.
She was older now. More mature. Immune to the hype. Could easily see through that cocky you want me grin the infant wore.
And yet, her mother ate it up with a spoon. “You don’t have to do that.” But she scooted over a few inches.
“I insist. I…need to…” A hand clamped down on his shoulder. His speech slowed down—way down—and watching the young man’s face change was almost like watching a gear physically click into place when he turned to see who stepped up behind him.
“Ladies.” Another man, only this time, he was a man, stepped up beside the infant lady-killer. “I hope my friend here isn’t bothering you.” He slung an arm around the other Marine’s shoulder in a grip that even Marianne could see was designed to restrain.
“We’re fine,” Marianne said easily. The infant was a little obnoxious, but she didn’t want him in trouble. “Really, no harm done at all.”
“This just makes things perfect, doesn’t it?” Mary said cheerfully, missing the undertones. “A Marine for each of us.”
“Marine? What gave it away?” The taller, older one smiled easily, but his grip never loosened on the young man. Like his younger friend, he wore the same distinctive military markers—medium brown hair in a high and tight, polo tucked into jeans without any designer rips or holes—but it wasn’t so much a definition of who he was, just something he wore comfortably. He was probably in his late twenties, early thirties tops, she’d guess. Not old. But old enough to flip a switch from silly little infant over to Oh boy, that’s good to look at.
And God. Hadn’t she just told herself Marines did nothing for her? Bad, Marianne. Bad.
“The high and tights, of course. And the impressive…physiques. Impossible to miss!” Mary ran a hand through her hair, smoothing it behind one ear. “Will you join us?”
“I think we’re quitting for the night. We’ve got an early day tomorrow. Don’t we, Tressler?” He said it so mildly, Marianne wouldn’t have picked up on the not-an-order order if she hadn’t been watching their body language.
A little sullen now, like a child being told playtime is over, Tressler gave them a weak smile. “Thanks for the conversation, ladies. Sorry to interrupt your evening.”
The other one waved and led his now-subdued friend off.
She couldn’t help but watch him as he approached the bar to pass off the man-child to another Marine while he settled his tab. Damn, now that was an ass made for jeans. The dark blue denim stretched comfortably over a butt she could easily guess would be tight enough to bounce a quarter off.
“You’re staring,” her mother murmured.
Marianne snapped her gaze back. “Am not.”
With a small smile, her mother traced the rim of her wine glass with a fingertip. “You know the reason I find it fun to flirt with men? Men I have no intentions of being with, and whom I know have no intentions of being with me? When I’m happily married to your father, and have been for almost thirty years?”
“I’m not sure I want to,” she muttered and killed the bottle with one last gulp.
“It’s because it makes me feel feminine and pretty. A little alive. Your father pays compliments, but it’s nice to be…seen, by other people. It’s fun, and harmless. And it makes me happy. What makes you happy?”
“Work.” The answer was easy enough, on the tip of her tongue before she could even think. “I love my job.”
“Of course you do. But I don’t see you looking at athletic tape and Icy Hot the way you just looked at that young man’s ass just now.”
“Things you never want to hear your mother say,” Marianne said to the ceiling.
Her mother raised a light brow. “Am I wrong?”
She was saved from having to answer when the server sat down another light beer and glass of wine. Marianne waved her hand to catch the woman’s attention before she made herself scarce again. “We didn’t order these.”
“Sent over from the bar. Guy says he’s sorry for the trouble and hope you weren’t offended by his friend’s intrusion.”
“Oh, that sweet boy.” Mary gulped the last of her wine and pushed the empty glass to the server before reaching for the fresh one. “He shouldn’t have.”
“No, he shouldn’t have. We don’t need drinks,” Marianne said quickly, stalling her mother’s arm. “Can you tell him we appreciate the gesture but—”
“Nope. He’s already gone. And that was definitely no boy.” The server winked and headed back to the bar.
So the other one—the one not using horrible pickup lines—had sent them. As an apology for his friend? Or more? She found herself searching the thinning crowd around the bar, just in case. But the server was right, both he and his younger companion—along with most of the crowd they’d come with—were gone.
“Looking for our mystery Marine, are we?”
She threw a crumpled up cocktail napkin at her mother. “Don’t start. And I can’t drink this. I’m driving home. My boxes aren’t going to unpack themselves.”
“Oh relax.” Mary leaned back in the booth. “Sip slowly, drink water, and slow down for five minutes. You’re having a drink with your mother, it can’t be that sinful.”
She debated for a good twenty seconds before grabbing the bottle and having a fresh sip of cool, refreshing beer. Fine. Five minutes, then back to real life.
Mystery Marine, no thank you.