This soldier can’t be tamed…
Yoga instructor Marlena Brodie is always up for a challenge, and convincing a hockey team full of rugged combat veterans that yoga will help them snap their losing streak is just that—even though it means being in close contact with Liam McAllister, her high school crush gone bad. She can feel the damage pouring off of him, but also a wild, sexy connection she can’t resist.
As a combat medic, Liam McAllister saved countless souls, but long after his discharge from the army, the wounds to his own soul just won’t heal. He’s given up on ever being whole or happy again, but Marlena’s fearless heart and healing touch stir his soul and body to life again. The raw heat they create together threatens to burn both their lives down, but Liam needs Marlena like he needs his next breath, so to be the man she deserves, this war hero will have to conquer his demons and take the greatest risk of all…falling in love.
Feigning patience, Marlena Brodie offered the last of her students a serene smile as they bowed at the door of her yoga studio. “Namaste. Have a peaceful evening.”
She waited until they’d cleared the sidewalk before locking the door. An anxious exhale stuttered out of her when she glanced at the clock. Only twenty minutes until she taught Liam McAllister a thing or two about what his thousand dollars would and wouldn’t buy.
After blowing out the candles around the room, she grabbed her wallet, then slipped out the back of the studio so as to avoid any students lingering in the parking lot. Not that grabbing a late dinner was anything to be ashamed of, but stress eating at Pancho Pete’s didn’t exactly fall in line with the body as a temple philosophy she exalted in class. Yes, her body was a temple, but right now that temple needed three rolled tacos with guacamole and habanero sauce.
She stole along the well-lit alley behind the strip mall that housed her studio on the northern end, through air that grew increasingly thick and pungent from the stale fryer oil wafting through Pancho Pete’s rear screen door at the opposite end of the line of storefronts.
The narrow restaurant was crowded, as usual, but Orlando was manning the register and he did a great job keeping the line moving. She reached the front in a few scant minutes and slid a five-dollar bill across the counter. “Hey, Orlando. This place is jumping tonight.”
“Guapita, you have no idea. It’s all about the nachos these days. Is that what you want?”
“Not tonight. Three rolled tacos with guacamole. Extra habanero sauce.” Orlando opened his mouth, but Marlena held up a hand and grinned at him. “I know guacamole is extra. You ask me every time.”
They shared a smile while Orlando entered her order and made change. “That just means you eat here too much. When are you going to let me take you out for a real Mexican feast?”
Orlando had to be at least thirty years her senior, but she indulged him with a wink. “One of these nights.”
And, hey, maybe eventually her harmless flirting would earn her some guacamole at no extra charge. A girl could dream.
When her order arrived in a cardboard boat, she stood at the end of the counter, drizzled the entire container of habanero sauce over the tacos, and dug in. It didn’t take long for her nose and eyes to start running. The roof of her mouth and tongue radiated fire, tears streamed over her cheeks, and her throat tingled, leaving no room in her head for stressful thoughts.
“Damn, that’s good,” she mumbled with a sniff.
A jingle of bells announced Pancho Pete’s front door opening. Marlena glanced up through watery eyes as she shoved the last of her second rolled taco into her mouth, then did a double take at the sight of Mr. and Mrs. Krandall from the evening class that’d let out a few minutes ago. What were they doing here? Fast food was a terrible post-yoga meal.
With a curse under her breath, Marlena grabbed her food and ducked behind the counter because, on a lot of levels, it wouldn’t be good business for the students of a holistic healing and yoga center to see their teacher macking on rolled tacos right after class.
The door jingled again. Marlena poked her head up. This time, Olivia walked through it. Olivia and Marlena had been best friends since the sixth grade, and she’d been in yoga class tonight as was her usual routine, but Marlena had hustled her out of the studio with a little white lie about having errands to run before the stores closed. Better that than admit she had a late-night massage appointment with Olivia’s twin brother.
Crouching, Marlena shuffled behind the counter toward the rear exit. “Just ignore me, Orlando,” she muttered as she passed.
Probably, this kind of thing happened more often than she was willing to admit because he didn’t question her, but merely chuckled and continued ringing up an order. Back in the alley, she ate her last taco, rolling her eyes with bliss as the final waves of spice tortured her taste buds and tingled the roof of her mouth.
She came down from the spicy high with a crash as she noticed a red splotch of sauce on her tank top, right on her chest. Shoot. Some sex goddess she’d be if Liam showed up to find her with food stains on her shelf. The reminder that, in a matter of minutes, he’d be in her studio—and they’d be alone together for the first time since they were teenagers—brought back her anxiety with the force of a tsunami. So much for the calming benefits of stress eating.
She hastened her steps back to the studio, praying that her stash of spare clothes was still in the supply closet. Once there, she kicked off her sandals, stripped her stained top over her head, then flung her closet open. A clean, pink tank top hung next to her spare coat. With a laugh of triumph she pulled it on. It was a shade too tight and low cut, but that worked perfectly for tonight’s plan.
After a quick run of a toothbrush over her teeth, she moved through the studio, ready to set the stage for her revenge. Rather than relighting the sandalwood candles, she opted for ylang-ylang-scented candles and incense—the most powerful aphrodisiac in her aromatherapy arsenal. The heady scent spilled into the air among coils of smoke and heat and silence.
Unrequited desire seemed a fitting punishment for a high school crush who’d spent his teenage years expending a lot of energy making sure she knew he thought she was ugly—only to then treat her like she was invisible in all the years since graduation. Neither of his inexcusable attitudes explained why he’d dropped a grand for the series of four massages she’d offered up in a charity silent auction, or why, despite it taking him two months to collect on the massages, he’d all but commanded her to fit him into her schedule after her last yoga class of the night. Neither explained why, on the phone, his voice had been husky and deep, as though he was picturing her stroking out a happy ending for him at the end of their appointment. As if a professional holistic healer such as herself would ever stoop to that, no matter how much money he’d paid for the privilege.
Against her will, a tendril of desire uncoiled inside her at the thought of him on her massage table, her hands sliding along the thick, long erection she’d always assumed he’d been blessed with, one that matched proportionally with the rest of his body’s height and breadth and bulk. She shook the image away. Not cool. He was supposed to be the one left wanting after tonight.
At five minutes until his appointment time, she unlocked the door, then took a seat on the stability ball she used as a desk chair. Fifteen minutes later, she was still waiting. So much for him being in a rush to see her. She caught her reflection in the glass of her storefront. Despite the dim studio lighting, she still looked good—her hair perfect and flowing, her breasts luscious and well-defined in the skintight pink tank that topped her equally skintight yoga pants. If she couldn’t make him want her tonight, with her looking like this and the sensual mood of the studio, then he never would.
Maybe he really does just want a massage.
For a thousand dollars? Yeah, right.
When the studio door finally opened several minutes later, she delayed the inevitable by listening to the sounds that framed his entrance—the static whir of air and cars, and the scrape of the door’s weathering strip along the carpet. Then, bracing for impact, she turned her gaze from the far wall to look at him. The angles of dim lamplight, candles, and shadows carved a dark intensity onto his face and into the cut of his jaw. Only the gold cross he wore gleamed where it hung around his neck.
Every molecule in her being tensed as though hunkering in self-defense. Even her heart thudded in tight, quick bursts. Thousands of times she’d seen Liam casually, from a distance, over the past two decades. Thousands of times and it never got easier. She flexed her toes out, then curled them into the carpet.
Rolling his weight from one foot to the other in an agitated sway, he hooked his thumb toward the parking lot. “I saw my sister’s car. Was she checking up on me again?”
No polite greeting, which wasn’t a big deal because she wasn’t all that crazy about small talk, herself, but the suspicion in his tone tipped her out of balance as much as the sight of him had.
She held his unyielding gaze. “You’re worried I told Olivia about your appointment tonight? I didn’t. She takes my evening yoga class. You ought to try it. It’d be a great complement to the massages. And would it be such a big deal if Olivia had been checking up on you? She wants to be a part of your life, if you’d let her.”
The hint of smirk he leveled at her tugged at his cheeks and tightened the edge of his eyes. He stepped more fully into the studio and stood before her desk, a soldier at ease, legs hip-width apart, hands clasped behind his back, spine straight.
Marlena might be eternally doomed to a jarring visceral reaction whenever she saw him, but she hadn’t been intimidated by his rakish charm in high school, and she wasn’t intimidated by the cold hostility that had overtaken him in the army. Rather, Marlena had always felt that she and Liam were two incompatible predators, studying each other on opposite sides of glass in a zoo.
A wolf and a lioness.
“Why do you think I’m here?” he asked.
Another question. Another test. Pressing her palms to the desk, she stood and searched the darkness in his gaze, looking for the answer. The ylang-ylang scent hovered between them, heavy with suggestion. “You’re here because you paid a pretty penny to be. Why do you think you’re here?”
The smirk erupted into a laugh, quiet, his eyes downturned. When he looked up again, it was through thick lashes. For the first time in a long time, she saw a hint of the charmer he used to be. “Why do I think I’m here? You trying to trip me up?”
“It wasn’t a trick question. You can only discover your true reason for being here after you leave.”
He tapped the bald head of the laughing Buddha figurine on her desk. “You talk like a new age guru, which makes sense because that’s what you are, right?”
“More or less.” She wasn’t a guru yet—not for many more years of study and practice—and nothing about what she taught or studied was new age, but ancient.
Another layer of artifice vanished from his face. She had no delusions that she was seeing the real Liam yet, but that would come. His true self would appear when she touched him, of that she was certain.
He set two tight fists on her desk and sank into his arms, the cross necklace swaying like a pendulum from his neck. “I’m here for my first massage.”
The skull tattoo on his right forearm looked up at her from black eye sockets. A tingle of desire skittered over her skin at the sight. She wasn’t usually turned on by his kind of hostile, in-your-face masculinity. But the tattoo turned her on anyway. The chiseled line of his jaw and his terse words turned her on. The flex of muscles beneath the thin, tight white tank top he wore turned her on even as he scared her with his potential for power. That was a funny thing the universe had done, making the line between lust and fear so fragile.
She pushed her tongue around her suddenly dry mouth, fighting for inner balance. It was useless. But if he wanted to keep pretending he was there for the massage, then she was professional enough to play along.
She walked around the desk and met him head-to-head. “I’m ready for you.”
That was a lie. She wasn’t ready for him. But she was ready for the challenge of him. She was always ready to take on challenges.
“Then let’s get to it.”
After locking the front door, she led the way behind the folding screen that separated the front office area from the expansive yoga space, then across the carpet and past the ylang-ylang candle to the massage table she’d set up in the back corner of the room.
As he followed, his energy balled up behind her like a storm cloud, as intense and suspicious as his questions had been. The agitation was still present, but also need. Want. Ego. Impatience. She turned at the foot of the massage table to find him standing too close, reminding her that though they might be different animals in a zoo, he’d paid one thousand dollars to make the glass between them disappear.
“What did you mean, that I wouldn’t know why I’m here until I leave?” he said.
Her focus slipped from his face to his arm as he shoved his hands in his jeans pockets. The skull tattoo undulated as though he was flexing and relaxing his fist. Lust and self-protectiveness roiled inside her. How was it possible that the same volatile, masculine power that she feared could be so provocative?
“Because you can’t know what the universe is trying to teach you until it teaches you. You can’t predict what you’ll learn,” she said.
With a slow blink, he edged nearer. His right hand slipped from his pocket to prop on the table close to her hip. He had enough inches of height over her and enough muscled bulk to his body to give the impression of looming, of crowding and intimidation.
It struck her, then, the position she’d put herself in. She was alone after dark in a locked office with a man made up of two hundred pounds of muscle wrapped in a white wife beater tank top and low-slung jeans. More than once, Olivia had confessed through tears that he’d emerged from his time as a combat medic a changed man—broken beyond repair. Mean, she’d said.
Marlena agreed about the change in him, but not the broken part. Nobody this strong, with waves of energy howling through him like Liam had, could be called broken.
She drew a sharp breath and tried to remember that this was her best friend’s twin, not some stranger. He knew where she lived and where her hangouts were; if he’d wanted to hurt her, he wouldn’t have bothered making an appointment. Now that he was so close, she could smell soap on him and see the damp tips of his hair. He was just human, a regular guy—not a monster like Olivia and so many people in town had made him out to be.
“I know why I’m here,” he said. His voice was a quiet rumble, each word measured precisely so that Marlena knew why he was there, too. Or, at least, why he thought he was there.
Marlena thought about the ylang-ylang candle. She thought about what her ego had wanted out of tonight—for him to desire her the way he should have always desired her. Because even back in high school, behind the freckles and chubbiness, she’d been a vixen. She was the shit, and as soon as she’d grown up and gotten out of her parents’ house, as soon as she’d began making money, she’d figured out how to sync the way she looked with the way she’d always felt—a little bit wild, a whole lot graceful, and an unapologetically sexual being.
“Then tell me,” she said.
He stepped partially in front of her, his left hip pressing into her right one. “I want your time and your attention, Marlena Brodie.”