SIDNEY CARVER HAD a big problem.
She sat at the kitchen table in her underwear and T-shirt early Sunday morning, pondering her situation. It wasn’t like she’d planned on falling in love with her best friend, who also happened to be her roommate and her boss for the last three years. She swirled a waffle finger in the pool of chocolate syrup on her plate, staring absently, as if a solution might magically appear there.
Short of leaving Cape Cod and the dog rescue she adored, her father and friends, and the only man she’d ever loved, she saw no reasonable way out of the situation. It was too bad holding a gun to his head and forcing him to love her back would land her in jail, because that sounded easier than walking away. She had been attracted to Gunner since they’d first met, but her feelings had deepened over the years, and lately those feelings had gotten too big to deny.
This was one of the few times in her life that she wished she had a mother to talk to. She’d been raised by an amazing father who had been only twenty when she was born, and he had taught her all about life, loyalty, and bravery. She could face a battlefield head-on, shoot a gun with expert precision, train dogs to save people’s lives, and nurture them back to health when they were injured. But winning her bestie’s heart was foreign territory, and she’d never been schooled in flirting or using her feminine wiles. She was more of a love me as I am or leave me girl, and she knew Gunner loved her as a friend just as she was, but way deep down, she also knew they could be so much more if he’d only let himself see her in that light.
She heard a door open upstairs and froze, her pulse quickening as said problem’s heavy footsteps sounded above her, followed by the scampering of his rescue dogs, Granger, Belleau, and Opha Mae. The farmhouse stairs creaked beneath his weight, reminding her of the woman Sidney had heard leaving his room around two in the morning and causing a resurgence of the jealousy that had been driving her nuts lately. She needed to either figure out how to win him over without risking their friendship or get over him altogether, because watching a trail of women do the walk of shame from his bedroom wasn’t on her to-do list.
Why did she have to fall for a player?
Maybe a better question was why she’d had to fall for her best friend, Dwayne “Gunner” Wicked, but that answer was easy. They’d served in the military together, and the stocky ex-marine/badass biker was the funniest, most thoughtful, and most generous man she’d ever known. Like Sidney, he loved every animal he’d ever come in contact with, and except for her father, he was the only man she could really be herself with, including laughing so hard she snorted like a donkey. Gunner was also a great boss and a fantastic workout partner who pushed her to be the best she could be. Beneath his player facade was a big, breakable heart that she wished he’d allow to love one woman—her—the way he loved his animals. But several years ago, the death of his younger sister, Ashley, had changed him. He acted like he didn’t give a damn about much of anything outside of family and animals, but Sidney knew better, even if the guy who had once let her into his heart and his head now kept conversations superficial at best. As an ex-marine and a member of the Dark Knights motorcycle club, which his father and uncle had founded years ago, Gunner was all about unbreakable bonds. That was another reason the way he was with women made no sense to her.
Sidney knew in her heart that she was the person Gunner needed, the one who could help him rediscover those parts of himself that he’d buried along with his sister. The trouble was, while she was totally his type on the inside, she was a twenty-nine-year-old, nearly-flat-chested woman who could pass for nineteen, and she preferred T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers to short skirts, provocative tops, and heels, while the women he gravitated toward were bodacious beauties who liked to show off their bodies and knew how to flirt a man into submission.
Sidney could coerce dogs into submission, but guys? Not so much.
She liked her body, and she didn’t long for big boobs and a plump booty, even if those curves might help Gunner see her differently. She was simply aware of the challenges she faced. Besides, when Gunner Wicked wanted a woman, nothing held him back, and he’d never once made a move toward being anything more than friends with her. That was the issue. She knew where she stood, and she didn’t want to risk their friendship to try to change it. But she had to do something before she lost her mind.
She heard Gunner open the front door to let the dogs out. “Go on, make your rounds.”
His deep voice floated into the kitchen. Sidney’s German shepherd, Rosco, popped to his three paws beside her, awakening Blizzard, Gunner’s old, gray rescue cat who hated everyone except him, who was lying on the chair beside Sidney. The cat hissed as Rosco limped past, excited to greet his second-favorite human. Blizzard settled back onto the chair, giving Sid a snide look.
“Hey, Rosco. How’s my boy?” Gunner’s voice floated into the kitchen.
Sidney didn’t have to see them to know Gunner was crouched in front of Rosco, probably wearing nothing but his underwear, as her pooch slobbered all over his face. Sidney had been Rosco’s handler in the military, and she had adopted him almost four years ago, after they’d both been injured when she’d sent Rosco in to clear a tunnel that Gunner’s unit was set to infiltrate and found a suicide bomber waiting for him. She and Rosco had suffered shrapnel wounds and broken bones. But while Sidney had gotten away with a mild traumatic brain injury, Rosco had lost his left back leg near his hip, his hearing in one ear, and much of his fur to burns. He was lucky to have survived.
She heard the front door open again, and Gunner said, “Go on out there and find your buddies.”
Sidney’s heart raced as his footsteps neared the kitchen. Do not look. Do not look. Do not look. She trained her eyes on her plate and not on her thickly muscled bestie as he sauntered into the room. His hand dipped over the chair where Blizzard was sleeping, and he set Snowflake, another rescue kitty, next to Blizzard. The hisser rubbed her head against Gunner’s arm, purring loudly.
Sidney could relate to the two-faced cat who had loved Gunner since he’d found her in a snowstorm two years ago and had claimed her as his own. Sidney wasn’t sure why she’d gone from crushing on him to fantasizing about a future with him full of love and lust and a house full of animals. Maybe it was because his cousin Maverick had recently fallen in love and married their friend Chloe. Or maybe Sidney’s hormones were just going bonkers because Gunner’s oldest brother, Tank, had fallen desperately in love with Leah, a waitress at the Salty Hog, their parents’ restaurant, and her two adorable little girls. Leah was pregnant, and their wedding was only two and a half months away. Sidney didn’t know if those happy couples were messing with her brain or why her feelings for Gunner had climbed to the forefront of her mind, but they had, and seeing him in his underwear would not help that situation.
Gunner walked over to her, standing so close it was impossible not to see the black boxer briefs stretched tightly over his beefy thighs, his tattoos snaking out from under them. She fought the urge to steal a glance at the other beefy package he paraded around her like she was just one of the guys.
“Mornin’, MOS.” He’d called her MOS, which was short for Military Occupational Specialist, since they’d first met.
“Good morning.” Don’t look. Don’t look. She stared at the table.
He plucked a waffle finger off her plate.
“There’s more by the stove.” She knew it wouldn’t matter. She used to make plates for both of them, but he always ate from hers, so now she piled enough food for both of them onto one plate. It worked out well. She made breakfast and he did the laundry.
He ran his fingers through the ends of her hair. “But they’re not as good as yours.” He grabbed ahold of her hair and tugged her head back.
Her gaze swept up his tatted torso and neck until she had no choice but to look at the dimpled face she knew by heart. Was that a flash of heat in his eyes? Her pulse quickened as she drank in his closely shorn blond hair. It was spiky on top but matted here and there from sleeping on it. She wanted to run her fingers through it, to rise off the chair and kiss his lips, to feel the scratch of his scruff on her cheeks and all the way down her body as he—
“Hope I didn’t keep you up last night.”
Fantasy shattered, she narrowed her eyes. “You mean for the seventeen seconds you lasted with your flavor of the night?”
He leaned down so close she could smell his minty toothpaste as he brushed his calloused hand tenderly over her forehead, gazing deeply into her eyes. If she didn’t know better, she’d think he was about to kiss her or say something sweet. But three, two, one…
An arrogant grin curved his lips. “So you were listening.”
She rolled her eyes. “Hardly. I heard your plaything bitching to someone on her phone as she snuck out.” The bitching part was a lie, but this was how they rolled, giving each other crap.
He laughed and went to the refrigerator, and she couldn’t resist stealing a glance. He was tatted from neck to waist and shoulders to wrists. His muscles flexed as he grabbed a jug of orange juice and guzzled it from the container. She’d long ago stopped trying to get him to use a glass. He put the jug back in the fridge and closed the door, looking thoughtfully at the pictures hanging on it. Gunner was big on pictures. He was always taking shots of her at the most inopportune moments. Like those on the fridge, one of which he’d taken the morning after they’d stayed out late at the Salty Hog. Her hair was a tangled mess, and she was sitting at the kitchen table in her underwear and a T-shirt with her knees pulled up to her chest, making a face at the camera from behind her splayed hand. And the picture where she was windblown and rain soaked, looking like a drowned rat with her hair in her face during a storm last fall. There were a few pictures of them in fatigues when they were in the military. In one picture, Gunner had his arm slung over her shoulder, and Rosco was by her side. In another, she was in full military garb from helmet to boots, carrying Rosco on her shoulders, the pooch’s tongue hanging happily out of his mouth, while she held a peace sign up in front of her face.
“This one’s still my favorite.” He tapped a picture of Sidney sitting on the couch in her favorite jeans with a hole in the knee, one leg extended, the sole of her white high-top aimed at the camera in an effort to get him to stop taking pictures. He’d taken that picture two years ago and had caught her taking off the white sweater with a heart on it that he’d given her. Her shoulders were bare, save for the straps from her tank top, and the sweater was bunched up on her arms, blocking her body. Her hair was in her face, but her smile was visible, and she was holding up a peace sign with her fingers, peering out from between them and her hair.
Gunner didn’t turn around to see her rolling her eyes as he poured himself a cup of coffee. He picked a favorite picture at least three times a week, and it was usually that one. Sidney’s favorite picture was of him with Granger, Belleau, and Opha Mae on the first birthday she’d celebrated at the farmhouse. The dogs were lined up in the living room with signs around their necks, each with one word on it, spelling out Happy Birthday MOS. Gunner was standing beside them, holding a bouquet of balloons and a chocolate cake he’d made for her.
Sidney tucked those memories away, letting her gaze travel down his back to his butt. He had a great butt. Who was she kidding? He had a great everything.
Frustrated with herself for ogling him, especially after he’d had some girl over last night, she turned around and swirled the rest of her waffle finger in the chocolate syrup. “Don’t you ever get tired of one-night stands?”
“Does Santa get tired of giving out presents?”
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