Subject: Navy SEAL Gabriel Thorne
Mission: Initiate Operation: Romance…and prove that one night isn’t enough!
Explosives expert and Navy SEAL Gabriel “Romeo” Thorne makes his living tempting fate. Pushing the limits. So far, he’s never lost—especially when it comes to women. That is, until his best friend’s wedding, where Gabriel is suddenly face-to-face—and deliciously body-to-body—with the one woman hot enough to detonate his self-control.
Tessa Monroe is used to being in control with men. Gabriel, on the other hand, is pretty much her sex kryptonite. Hard, gorgeous, dark-eyed kryptonite. Even as her defenses whisper “danger,” lust demands she take her pleasure with him and then run. Now they’re skirting the edge of an explosive attraction…where one wrong move could mean disaster.
Originally published in 2015.
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Chief Petty Officer Gabriel Thorne had yet to find a challenge he couldn't meet, beat or defeat.
And today's game was no different.
Ignoring the noise, the intense stares and the heavy expectations, he assessed the field, making note of all of his options even as his mind calculated risks and probabilities. There were three easy shots, ones that would assure him an advance. But Gabriel had no need for easy.
A quick glance at the clock assured him that he did have a need for speed, though.
He leaned over the pool table, slid the cue between his fingers and, in a practiced move, placed a machine-gun shot right in the center of the waiting balls, sending them all flying home to clear the table.
"And that's how it's done," he told his scowling opponent.
Gabriel easily read the fury in the guy's face, but kept his grin in check while the other man yanked his wallet from his slacks pocket.
"Another round," insisted Jase Jeglinskiotherwise known as Jackrabbit to the SEAL team.
"Another time." Gabriel tilted his chin toward the billiard-ball-shaped clock on the wall, ignoring the mutinous set of Jackrabbit's jaw and the guy's clenched fists.
Even if he'd let one fly, Gabriel would have reacted with the same easy disregard. Because there was nothing Jackrabbit could dish out that Gabriel couldn't take.
The easy confidence he'd been born with had been carefully honed to a razor-sharp edge in his years in the military.
"Dude, do you ever lose?" another of the men surrounding them asked in awe.
"Romeo? Never." Scavenger laughed as he collected his own winnings from the other three men. "I warned you not to bet against him."
Gabriel shook his head. Leave it to Scavengeraka Petty Officer Shane O'Brian to anyone not on the SEAL teamto make sure the odds were as even and fair as possible. Sooner or later, he'd learn that it didn't matter what he didlife just wasn't gonna turn out fair. But Gabriel figured it was his job to watch his buddy's back, not to offer up that particular lesson.
"You keep him around to carry your ego?" Jackrabbit asked with a laugh that held no amusement as Scavenger expanded his praise to include Gabriel's legendary success with the ladies.
"Nah. I keep him around because he can turn a tin can, a pile of sand and a couple of rocks into a tactical communications device that will get our ass out from behind enemy lines," Gabriel retorted, only half joking since he was sure the communications specialist could do just that.
He ignored Jackrabbit's skeptical snort because he understood it. A SEAL team wasn't a team simply because the group of men had been assigned together. They had to work together and prove themselves to establish real trust.
Gabriel, or Romeo as he was more often referred to, Scavenger and their pal Irish, aka Mitch Donovan, had been reassigned from Virginia to the West Coast less than seven months ago and had been otherwise deployed for most of that time. So while they were a part of the team on paper, until they'd deployed on a mission with the rest of the men, he knew they were still proving themselves.
"So that's the shooting range, the pool table and what was the other one?" Tall and dark haired with a muscular build that leaned toward lanky, Lt. Taylor Powell gave Jackrabbit an amused look. "Beer guzzling, wasn't it?"
"He can't win them all."
"Sure he can," Scavenger disagreed with a friendly smile. "I've never seen him lose a bet."
"All that means is he only takes sure bets," Jackrabbit said with a growl, obviously still pissed.
Gabriel didn't blame him. Losing sucked. Or so he'd heard.
"Ops, bets, women," Scavenger said in a musing sort of tone. "We've served together for six years now and I'm pretty sure he's won them all."
To prove his point, he continued regaling the others with a few of Gabriel's exploits.
Gabriel ignored the stories and the ensuing laughter as he racked up the balls for whoever wanted to play the next round. He didn't need to defend himself. His record stood solid on its own. Jackrabbit would see that soon enough, since they were heading into training together next week.
He'd learn that Gabriel was used to winning.
Define your path, stand your ground. That was what his grandfather had taught him. That and to never let anyone else's actions define his own. Simple rules that'd defined his life. Because of them, he'd survived leaving the reservation and living on the streets after his grandfather died. He'd got out of the slums, he'd joined the Navy, he'd become a SEAL. Because of those rules, he'd never met a challenge he couldn't meet, beat or defeat.
It was what he did.
It was who he was.
Maybe it hadn't always been that way, but it was now.
And now was all that mattered.
Gabriel glanced at the clock again, noting how fast time was flying by.
"C'mon, boys. We've got a party to get to."
Not that Irish would be docking points for them being late to his little shindig. But Gabriel figured their commander's bride-to-be might be a little put out if half of her fiance's team was late to their engagement celebration. And Gabriel made a point to never disappoint a lady.
As one, the eight men strode out of Olive Oyl's bar with a wave here and a shout-out there to familiar faces. Outside, the cool air washed over them in welcome as they straddled their motorcycles. Not nearly as comfortable as they'd be in jeans or even in uniform, some of the men tucked their ties into their shirts, a couple of them stowing their suit jackets into their saddlebags.
Gabriel, who hadn't bothered to put either on yet, simply unhooked his helmet. Before he could pull it on, the deceptively lanky guy on the Indian Chief next to him tilted his head.
"Watch your back," murmured Mr. Wizard, as the team called Taylor. "Jackrabbit's got a hard-on to take you down."
"Ain't gonna happen."
"He's just superstitious," Scavenger remarked from the other side, his words pitched low enough that nobody beyond the three of them could hear over the roaring engines. "He figures your luck has to run out eventually and he doesn't want to be on a mission with you when it does."
Scavenger really believed that? Damn, the guy was gullible. In the act of unlocking his helmet, Gabriel exchanged looks with Taylor, who was rolling his eyes.
"Jackrabbit can keep his hard-ons and his superstitions to himself," Gabriel stated, pulling his helmet on to put an end to the conversation.
But as he kicked the Harley to life and put it into gear, Jackrabbit angled his bike into the lead, deliberately cutting off Gabriel. Forced to admit that Mr. Wizard had a point, Gabriel bided his time. As soon as they hit the freeway onramp, he throttled hard, letting the bike fly around traffic. He kept it just under one hundred miles per hour, not needing to look at the speedometer to confirm since he knew the bike as well as he knew his own body. All it took was a glance in the rearview mirror to assure him that the team had accepted his challenge.
And the race was on.
Grinning into the wind as it beat against his face, Gabriel took the scenic routeoff the freeway, along the beach, through every twist and turn he could find. Might as well make it interesting.
By the time they'd caught up in the parking lot of the fancy renovated manor house, he'd wrapped himself in a tie, pulled on his suit jacket and was adjusting his cuffs.
Gabriel waited until everyone had dismounted and they were all ready to head in to the party before clapping Jackrabbit on the shoulder.
"Why don't you just accept it, bro? I always win."
Tessa Monroe easily ignored the appreciative looks and heated stares as she crossed the elegant ballroom surrounded by the glitter of crystal, the sweetness of white roses and the tinkling melody of good cheer.
Her long brunette curls swayed over milky white skin, the rich purple of her silky dress perfectly fitting the posh ambiance of the ballroom.
The setting suited her.
Of course, she looked just as good in the gym wearing skimpy, yet breathable cotton. Or on the beach in a tiny bikini. On the slopes wearing layers, behind her laptop while she interviewed relationship experts for her latest column or on a date with the latest in her string of male conquests.
Simply put, she was a woman used to being admired.
So used to it that she barely noticed. Instead, she admired the huge manor. Lit up like a beacon, the chandeliers glinted as music played softly in the background. The ballroom was so filled with people that Tessa welcomed the cool March night air wafting through the open doors. She could see the torch-lit paths leading from the gardens to the beach beyond, but didn't think anyone had ventured out yet.
It was a lovely party that suited Olivia Kane perfectly. And Tessa wanted her best friend to be safe and happy. But Livi was making a huge mistake. Tessa knew it; she was terrified of it. Yet she couldn't do a damned thing about it. Not without putting her friend's happinessand more important, her healthat risk.
So Tessa did something so unusual, so out of character, that she had to focus on it with all her being. She ignored her instincts, put aside her personal prejudices and, God forbid it became a habit, for the first time in her life she tried faking it.
With her brightest smile plastered on her face, she pretended she was perfectly thrilled as she made her way to her dearest, oldest friend's side to celebrate what could be a huge, painful mistake.
She had to say something. At least get Livi to consider what she was jumping into. Not just marriage. But marriage to a military man. A SEAL.
Her mind simply boggled.
"Livi " Her voice trailed off as the rest of the words disappeared somewhere in her throat before they reached her tongue.
Her blond hair twisted into a cascading crown of curls down the shoulder of her lipstick-red dress and her huge brown eyes dancing with happiness, Livi looked better than Tessa had ever seen her. Tucking her arm into Tessa's, Livi offered a bright smile, hers as genuine as the sweetness shining from her face.
How the two of them were such good friends was baffling, since the only thing sweet about Tessa was her taste in desserts.
"About all of this," Tessa said, waving her hand to indicate the party. But once more her words trailed off as she looked into Livi's face.
She glowed, as if she were lit from within with happiness. Joy shone in Livi's eyes, pleasure curved her lips and her entire being simply radiated delight.
Crap. Tessa sighed. She couldn't do it.
"Can I get you more cider?" she offered instead, gesturing to Livi's almost empty glass with her own champagne flute.
"Oh, no. I'm fine. Isn't it lovely here?" Practically bouncing in her Louboutin shoes, Livi gazed around the beachside manor. "I'd so love to have the wedding here, but there aren't spots available until November."
Before Tessa could suggest she hold out, since November was only eight months awaydidn't it take years to plan these sorts of things anyway?Livi continued.
"But obviously we can't wait that long," she said with a soft laugh. Rubbing her hand over her silk-covered, flat belly, she added, "Mitch's mother would really like it better if we were married before the baby arrives."
And that settled it.
Tessa offered a passing waiter a smile big enough to make him trip in his rush to bring her another glass of champagne. As soon as she'd exchanged flutes, she knocked back half of the bubbly to hide her grimace.
"Now, that's a sight made to make women swoon," Livi murmured with an appreciative sigh. "You know, we work with good-looking, incredibly built men all the time, but these guys give new meaning to the word fit!"
Ready to be distracted, Tessa put her worries aside. Because if there were one thing she made a point of appreciating on a regular basis, it was men. So much so that she'd managed to turn her enjoyment of the male species into a career writing about the games between the sexes.
Sometimes when she was alone late at night she wondered how long she could finesse her talent for flirting into a viable profession. When the clock ran out on that option, what would she do? Emulate her mother, who'd flirted her way through sixand countingmarriages so far?
Tessa shuddered at the thought.
More than ready to be distracted and play, Tessa followed her friend's gaze in search of a worthy opponent.
And damn near spun on her five-inch Giuseppe Zanotti heels and ran the other way.
Her heart skipped, bouncing in her chest a few times before plunging into her stomach. It had plenty of company there, as it tangled up with a wild jangle of anticipation, nerves and lust. She tried to swallow but her throat was too dry. Her tongue, usually quite nimble, was glued to the roof of her mouth.
She shifted her gaze to the gardens beyond the French doors, pretending she found the sight peaceful. Fingers clenching and unclenching around the stem of her glass, she took a couple of deep breaths and focused on pulling the soothing air down to her belly until she found some semblance of calm.
Then she looked back at the group of men who'd just walked into the mansion.
Her heart raced again. Emotions spun through her, too fast to identify. It didn't matter. She didn't care what they were. Only that they spun right back out.
"Why is he they here?" she asked, hoping Livi hadn't caught her slip of the tongue.
"The team? You don't think Mitch would celebrate our engagement without his SEALs, do you?" Livi asked with a laugh. Then, before Tessa realized what her friend was going to do so she could have grabbed her arm to stop her, Livi gave a big ol' exuberant wave.
As one, the men looked their way.
But Tessa only saw one man.
Taller than the rest, his shoulders broad and tempting beneath a lightweight sport coat the same vivid black as his eyes, he wore a simple dress shirt under his jacket, yet managed to look perfectly elegant.
His gaze locked on her, sending a zing of desire through her body with the same intensity as it had the first time he'd looked her way six months before.
Tessa Monroe, the woman who'd flicked off movie stars, who'd written articles calling out misogynists and who alwaysalwayscame out on top when it came to any encounter with the opposite sex, wanted to duck behind her friend and hide.
"That's so sweet of his friends to come all this way to celebrate your engagement to Mitch," she said hopefully, watching Livi's fiancé stride through the crowd to greet the group with back slaps and what looked to be laughing taunts. "Isn't most of Mitch's team stationed across the country?"
"They didn't have to come far. They're all based in Coronado now. Didn't I tell you?" Livi asked, her eyes locked on Mitch as if she could eat him up with her gaze alone. "Romeo's the best man."