What I Love About You

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Blake Junger looked at the bottle of Johnnie. At the blue and gold label and sun filtering through the rare scotch whisky. He’d paid three hundred dollars for the bottle of booze, and he craved it in the pit of his stomach. It tugged and pulled at his insides, and the sharp edge of need cut across his skin.

One drink. Calm the craving. Dull the sharp edges.

Blake’s knuckle popped as he tightened his grasp on the chair.

Just one more. You can stop tomorrow.

The craving grew stronger, pinching his skull. Wasn’t day sixty-two supposed to be easier than day one? His stomach rolled. His ears buzzed in his head and he picked up the camera by his hip. He wrapped the black and yellow strap around his forearm and pointed his Nikon SLR at Johnnie. Six months ago, he’d stared down the scope of a bolt-action TAC–338 in Mexico City with two corrupt Mexican police officers sharing his crosshairs. These days, he shot his enemy with a camera. He looked through the viewfinder and dialed up the bottle. His hands shook and he tightened his grasp.

“What are you doing?”

Blake spun around and almost dropped the camera. “Holy fuck!” A little girl in a pink shirt and long blond ponytail stood behind his chair. “Where in the hell did you come from?” He’d lost his touch if a little kid could sneak up on him.

With her thumb she pointed next door. “You said two bad words.”

He scrubbed his face with one hand and lowered the camera by the strap to his chair. She’d scared the shit out of him, and that wasn’t easy to do. “And you’re trespassing.”

She scrunched up her nose. “What’s that mean?”

He’d never been around kids and couldn’t even guess her age. She was about as tall as his navel and had big blue eyes. “Trespass?”

“Yeah.”

“It means you’re in my yard.”

“I know it’s your yard.” She actually rolled those blue eyes at him. “I saw you move in.”

A five foot patch of forest separated the two properties, and he glanced at the neighboring yard through the trees. The woman living there was working in the flower garden that she had managed to scratch out of the forest. Ass-up in pink and purple flowers, her shorts rode up just high enough to show the naked curve of her butt. He’d noticed her before today. He might be a drunk, white-knuckling sixty-two days’ sobriety, but he was still a man. A man who appreciated a nice ass pointed his way. He’d never seen the woman’s face. Just the back of her blond head and her sweet butt cheeks.

“What’s your name?”

He turned his attention back toward the child and wondered if he should feel guilty for having sexual thoughts about the kid’s mama. “Blake.” He didn’t feel guilty. He just wondered if he should feel guilty. “Is that your mom?”

“Yeah. She’s not at the store today.”

He couldn’t recall hearing a man’s voice coming from next door as he’d studied the mom’s butt. “Where’s your dad?”

“He doesn’t live with us.” She swung her arms from side to side. “I don’t like bees.”

He frowned down at the little squid in front of him. He didn’t know what bees had to do with anything, but after sixty-two days, nausea rolled through him like it was the first. He felt like he might puke and dropped his shaking hands to his hips.

“You’re weally weally big.”

He was a little over six foot and weighed two-twenty. In the past few months he’d dropped twenty pounds. One of the last times he’d seen his twin, his brother had called Blake “a pudgy fucker.” They’d been slugging it out at the time. Arguing over who was the better shot and the toughest superhero, Batman or Superman. Beau had been Superman, but he was right about the fat. After Blake had retired from the teams, he’d had time to kill between security jobs. He’d stopped working out as much and started drinking more. “How old are you, kid?”

“Five.” Her arms fell to her side and she tossed her head. “I’m not a kid.”

Behind him Johnnie whispered, I’m still here. Waiting. Blake ignored the whisper. He needed to jog or swim. He needed to wear himself out, but that didn’t mean he’d quit and let Johnnie win. No, a warrior knew when to withdraw and come back hard.

“I’m a hoss.”

Blake moved his head from side to side as the pain in his skull thumped his brain. “What the hell’s a hoss?”

She rolled her eyes again like he was a bit slow. “A hhhooooosssss.”

Blake spoke perfect English, broken Arabic, and fluent split-fucking-infinitive. He’d never heard of a hoss.

“My name is Bow Tie.”

“Bow Tie?” What the hell kind of name was that?

“I have yellow hair with white spots.” She tossed her head again and stomped one foot. “I have a white mane and tail. I’m fancy.”

“Are you saying ‘horse’?” Jesus. She was turning the ache in his head to a stabbing pain. “You’re a horse?”

“Yes, and I’m weally fast. Do you want to see me race?”

He’d never been around kids. He didn’t even know if he liked kids. He was fairly sure he didn’t like this kid. She thought she was a “hoss,” couldn’t say some of her R’s, and looked at him like he was slow in the head. “Negative. You should go home now.”

“No. I can stay.”

“You’ve been here long enough now. Your mother is probably wondering where you are.”

“My mom won’t mind.” She pawed the ground with one sandaled foot, then took off. She ran in a big circle around Blake. She actually galloped around and around. And God help him, with her head bobbing and her ponytail flying behind her, she kind of resembled a little pony.

Around and around she ran, stopping a few times to paw at the air and neigh. “Hey kid,” he called to her, but she just tossed her head and kept going. The pull of Johnnie rode him hard and irritation broke out across his skin. He had better things to do than stand there as a weird little girl acted like a horse. Better things, like go for a jog or swim or poke himself in the eye with a stick. “Time to go home.” She pretended not to hear him. What did she call herself? “Stop, Bow Tie!”

“Say whoa, girl,” she managed between rapid breaths.

He didn’t take orders from children. He was an adult. He wanted to tear out his hair. Christ almighty. “Shit.”

Around she ran, her pale cheeks turning pink. “That was a bad word.”

Blake frowned. “Whoa, girl.”

She finally stopped directly in front of him and blew out a breath. “I went weally fast.”

“You need to run home.”

“That’s okay. I can play for …” She paused before adding, “Five moe minutes.”

He’d lived in a dirt hole and crawled through swamps. He’d eaten bugs and pissed in Gatorade bottles. For twenty years, his life had consisted of hard, rough edges. When he’d retired from the teams, he’d had to make a deliberate effort to keep the F-word out of every sentence and his hand off his nuts. He’d had to remember that in civilian life, creative swearing wasn’t a competitive sport and that ball scratching wasn’t a public event. He had to remember the manners his mother had pounded into his and Beau’s heads. Nice, polite behavior toward everyone from little kids to little old ladies. Today he wanted this kid gone before he ripped his skin off, and he chose not to remember those nice manners. He purposely narrowed his eyes and gave the kid the hard steel gaze that he’d used to make terrorists cower.

“What’s wrong with your eyes?”

She didn’t seem at all afraid. She was definitely a little slow in the head. Another time he might have taken that into consideration. “Get your ass in your own yard.”

She gasped. “You said a bad word.”

“Go home, little girl.”

She pointed at the cat on the front of her T-shirt. “I’m a big girl!”

Another day, another time, he might have admired the kid’s guts. He leaned forward and towered over her like his father used to do to him and Beau. “I shit bigger than you,” he said, just like his old man.

The kid sucked in a scandalized breath but wasn’t intimidated at all. She wasn’t shaking in her little shoes. Was there something wrong with the kid, besides her thinking she was a horse, or was he losing his touch?

“Charlotte?”

Blake and the kid spun toward the sound of a woman’s voice. She stood a few feet away, wearing a little yellow T-shirt and those shorts he’d had the privilege of seeing from behind. The shadow of a big straw hat hid her face and rested just above just the bow of her full lips. Pretty mouth, nice legs, great ass. Probably something wrong with her eyes.

“Mama!” The kid ran to her mother and threw herself on the woman’s waist.

“You know you aren’t supposed to leave the yard, Charlotte Elizabeth.” The shade of her hat slid down her throat and T-shirt to her breasts as she looked down at her child. “You’re in big trouble.”

Nice-size breasts, smooth curve in her waist. Yeah, probably had funky eyes.

“That man is weally mean,” the kid wailed. “He said bad words at me.”

The sudden sobbing was so suspect he might have laughed if he was in a laughing mood. Behind him, Johnnie whispered his name, and in front, the shade of a straw hat rested on the top of nice pair of breasts. The shadow dipped into her smooth cleavage, and lust plunged straight down Blake’s pants. He went from irritation to desire to a combination of both in the blink of an eye.

The brim of the hat rose to the bow of her lip again. “I heard him.” The corners of her mouth dipped in a disapproving frown.

His frown matched hers. He’d always avoided women like her. Women with children. Women with children were looking for daddies, and he’d never wanted kids. His or anyone else’s.

“Please don’t swear at my child.”

“Please keep your child out of my yard.” Women with children wanted men who wanted relationships. He wasn’t a relationship kind of guy. Out of all the SEAL teams, Team Six had the highest divorce rate for a reason. It was filled with men who loved to throw themselves out of airplanes and get shot out of torpedo tubes. Filled with good men who weren’t any good at relationships. Men like him, and until recently, like his brother. Men like his father, whose wives divorced them after twenty years of serial cheating.

“Fine.” Her lips pursed like she was going to hit him or kiss him. Off the top of his head, he’d guess the former. “But what kind of man talks like that to a child?”

The kind who was white-knuckling his sixty-second day of sobriety. The kind who wanted to pour some Johnnie down his throat, say fuck it, and dive face-first into soft cleavage. “What kind of mother lets her child roam around unsupervised?”

She gasped. “She was supervised.”

“Uh-huh.” He’d made her mad. Good. Now maybe she’d leave. Leave him to his fight with Johnnie and himself.

“Charlotte knows better than to leave our yard.”

He pointed out the obvious. “This isn’t your yard.”

“She’s never run off before.”

He couldn’t see her eyes, but he could feel her angry gaze. All hot and fiery. He liked hot and fiery. He liked it riding him like a banshee. Wild, screaming his name, and … Christ. His lust for Johnnie and this nameless woman made him dizzy. “Only takes once for her to get hit by a truck,” he heard himself say between clenched teeth. “I had a dog that only got out once. Bucky ended up as axle grease for a Chevy Silverado.” He shook his head. God, he’d loved that poodle. “He’d been a damn good dog, too.”

Her pink mouth opened and closed like she was speechless. Then she waved a hand at the bottle of Johnnie and obviously found her voice. “Are you drunk?”

“No. Haven’t had a drop.” He wished he could blame his erection on Johnnie.

“Then you don’t have an excuse. You’re just a … a …” She paused to cover the girl’s ears with her palms. “A raging asshole.”

She’d get no argument from him.

“I heard that,” the kid said into her mother’s stomach.

“Come on, Charlotte.” She grabbed the kid’s hand and stormed off. He could practically see the steam shooting out of her ears.

So much for being the charming twin.

He shrugged, and his gaze fell to her nice butt.

Fuck it. Charming was for nice guys, and he hadn’t felt nice for a very long time.