Clutching her semiautomatic to her chest, Charlotte “Charlie” Sparks crouched behind a decapitated tree. Rivulets of sweat dripped into her eyes, and any pink-tinted locks of hair not glued to her head whipped across her face. She blinked through the sharp sting, slowly wrangling both her vision and her concentration back into focus.
It wasn’t the time or place to dwell on what had happened the last time she’d stepped onto this field—the time when she’d moved too suddenly; the time when she’d been spotted; the time she still hadn’t managed to live down.
“Everyone in position?” Alpha leader Sean Stone’s voice rumbled from the tactical communication piece tucked behind Charlie’s right ear.
“Good here.” Chase Kincaid, Alpha’s medic, started off the round-robin of affirmatives that included lead negotiator Trey Hanson. But they wouldn’t need Trey’s expertise this time around because tonight was an all-out war. No negotiating. No prisoners. Survival of the fittest. Let the best man—or woman—remain standing.
“Ready,” Charlie muttered when her check-in turn came last.
At barely five-foot-three and a hundred and twenty pounds, stealth not only came easier to her than it did to her oversized counterparts, but it fooled more than one Neanderthal into labeling her a damsel.
She loved proving those bloody bastards wrong.
“It’s a go,” Stone announced. “I repeat, it’s a go. Fast and light. Eyes on the prize.”
Keeping low to the ground, Charlie breached the heavy thicket of trees and headed immediately toward the immense boulder on her left. She skirted around the rock’s perimeter until she saw her target—right there in all its beautiful Day-Glo glory.
Less than fifteen yards away, the opposing team’s orange flag swayed in the May evening breeze. It was an easy sprint. A quick dash. Hell, she could spit and reach it with inches to spare.
“I have my eyes on the prize,” Charlie notified her team, keeping her voice low. “But it’s suspiciously quiet—and out in the open.”
She scanned the area and came up empty—no oddly shaped shadows, no suspect movements. To the untrained eye, the area was devoid of human presence…but Charlie knew for a fact there were at least six other people out there with the same two goals—either get the flag or keep her from getting it.
“Hawkeye, you have a bead on me?” Charlie addressed their lone sniper.
“Got your position locked,” Logan’s voice chimed back. “Everything’s clear from your eleven o’clock to four. You’re the hottest thing out there, darlin’.”
Charlie rolled her eyes at the ridiculousness of the double entendre, something at which the Texan excelled.
“You get what I did there?” he asked after her prolonged silence. “I’m reading heat signatures and you just so happen to be British Barbie.”
“I think I have one too many tattoos to be considered a doll,” Charlie said.
“So you’re Badass British Barbie.”
“Call me a Barbie one more time and you’ll get a first-hand glimpse of how those steer on your family ranch feel on castration day.”
“Harsh, darlin’. Really harsh.” Logan chuckled. “Stop flirting with me and go get us that win—and take no freaking prisoners.”
A small smile danced across her lips. “Not planning on it.”
Charlie stepped—and cringed as a twig crunched beneath her heel. Irritated that she’d let herself get distracted, she listened for any signs that she’d been compromised. After a solid thirty seconds of hearing nothing but rustling leaves, she kept going.
Ten feet from victory, a mountain-sized commando stepped into her path—too damn close for her not to have heard a damn thing. Charlie screeched to a halt.
Where the bloody hell had he come from?
Charlie had dealt with cocky, too-gorgeous alpha-hero types every day and managed to keep her sexual fantasies down to nil—until Vince had joined the team. The former SEAL commander always seemed…more. More intense. More combustible. And more than capable of awakening the sexual libido that had been in remission a lot longer than she cared to admit. From his piercing hazel eyes and commanding presence to every tattooed inch of his body, the man was the epitome of Doom and Brood and would look dangerous donning flannel pj’s and a pair of bunny slippers. Put him in head-to-toe black camo and a throw a cap over his shaved head?
He looked lethal.
Neither of them moved as his gaze traveled up and down the length of her body, each pass tightening the mouth she’d fantasized about more than a few times through the course of the year. His hands, wrapped around his gun, flexed, diverting her attention to the full sleeve of colorful tattoos decorating both ridiculously corded arms.
Those bloody arms.
Some women coveted a broad chest with pecks that could make a quarter bounce—which Vince had. Some women fantasized about a firm, hard ass with a slight curvature perfect for palming—which Vince also had. And some women drooled over callused hands, a symbol of hard work and talent in something other than pushing papers—which Vince also had.
But as delightful as all those attributes were to any red-blooded woman, Charlie was an arm girl. More specifically—forearms. When every hand-flex and wrist-rotation resulted in the gliding movement of ripped, corded muscle, something happened in her brain that shorted her circuits and sent a warmth straight to her lady goods.
Unfortunately for Charlie, Vince’s arms not only managed to short out her brain cells, but set them—and her body—ablaze. Like they were now. By the time she realized that drool had started collecting at the corner of her mouth, Vince’s lips gave a little twitch, which for him was practically an award-winning smile.
Charlie recovered from the shock of seeing it by drilling him with her best glare. With his gun already at half-mast, he could fire a round into her safety vest before she even took aim. “What are you waiting for? An invitation? Go ahead and get it over with.”
“You managed to get this far.” Vince gestured toward the flag flapping in the breeze behind his shoulder. “Finish what you started. I’m not going to get in your way.”
“I’m closing in,” Chase’s voice murmured in Charlie’s ear mic. “Keep him distracted.”
Charlie plastered an unassuming smile on her face and watched the former SEAL go on high alert as she took a small step closer. Good. She liked that she could make him nervous. Well, maybe not nervous…edgy.
She refused to pull her gaze away from his as she stalked closer. “Do I look like I was born yesterday, Navy?” Another step.
“The second I turn my eyes away from you, you’re going to fire off a round, and then I’m out.”
“You need to work on those trust issues, English.”
A truer statement had never been uttered.
Another step and her vest brushed against his when she took a deep breath. “I have a name, you know. And it’s not English.”
“Maybe I’ll learn it when you realize mine isn’t Navy.”
“What if I shelve Navy and come up with something even more annoying?”
“You do and I’ll switch English to Crumpet.”
Vince shifted. In the overstretched, gaping folds of his vest, Charlie saw her opportunity—and took it. She drilled the butt of her paintball gun into his left torso and gave it a twist for good measure.
“Low blow,” he grunted. “But so’s this.”
His arm hooked around her waist, dragging her flat against his body a split second before he spun them right. Charlie’s back met the bark of the nearest tree, both her hands and her gun effectively sandwiched between their chests.
Damn smart blimey bastard.
“You should’ve left when I gave you the chance. Now where the hell are you going to go…Crumpet?” Vince murmured against her ear.
Hell if she knew. He trumped her in size a few times over. Charlie squirmed and twitched. Vince only held on tighter…but in order to anchor her against the tree, he widened his stance, leaving his family jewels vulnerable.
“Sorry, Flipper, but you asked for this.” Charlie leaned back a fraction of an inch and lifted her knee straight up between his legs. Even mountain men couldn’t shake off a direct shot to the juniors.
On contact, Vince released her instantly, doubling over with a low, hissing growl. Charlie leapt forward, quickly yanking the flag off its perch, and whistled. “Game over!” she shouted, gleeful.
Defeated groans and victorious shouts echoed around them as the teams started stepping into the small clearing. Charlie turned toward Vince, prepped to gloat and maybe see if he required medical attention. But instead of seething in pain, the man had his gaze resting squarely on her arse.
Each step Charlie took toward him amped up her degree of mad. “You better not have let me win, or my knee’s going to feel like a tickle compared to what I’m going to do next.”
He kept his face impassive and shrugged. “You got really fucking close. You deserved to win.”
“No.” She shook her head angrily. “I would’ve deserved to win if I’d gotten the flag without being seen. I can win on my own. I don’t need some He-Man type giving me a free pass. Next time you can take the shot, take it, and stop staring at my bloody arse.”
Charlie turned and stalked away before she did more than knock her knee into his man bits. But on her tenth step, she heard Vince’s low mutter, “Maybe I like staring at your bloody arse.”
Her patience dragging on the ground, Charlie spun and squeezed the trigger. A handful of bright pink paint splattered on Vince’s chest pad—dead center.
“What the hell was that for? The game’s fucking over, English,” Vince growled.
She fired another shot dangerously close to the bottom edge of his protective gear. A few inches lower, or with slightly off aim, and he would’ve been walking funny for weeks. “The first was for the arse comment—because my behind is not yours to ogle. And the second was for calling me English. Again.”
Charlie stormed off the field, where her foul mood was intercepted by two of her best friends.
Penny, the first to drag one of the Alpha men into the pits of love and happiness, was decked out in black camouflage much like Charlie herself, having joined in on the game. But Elle, waddling slowly over tree limbs, toted around a protruding pregnancy belly instead of a paintball gun.
Grinning, Penny bumped into her shoulder. “You’re getting soft on us. I thought for sure you were going to shoot a blast of paint straight into his crotch.”
Elle snorted on a chuckle and carefully stepped over a mossy tree branch. “We placed a bet on it. Although I don’t know who wins, because we both bet crotch. Maybe we can all share an ice cream sundae and call it a draw.”
If it had been one of the other guys who’d taken it easy on her, or if she’d known if he was wearing manly protection, Charlie would’ve done as Penny had suspected. But she didn’t want to permanently dismember the guy. Not to mention, aiming toward Vince’s crotch meant looking at his crotch, and her imagination needed no additional encouragement in picturing the infuriating man sans camo and padding.
Reaching the end of the paintball field, Charlie chanced one final look over her shoulder and immediately collided with a familiar piercing gaze. Depending on his mood, the shade either darkened or lightened. Most women would have drowned in their depths and died happy, but Charlie reached for her metaphorical life vest and held on for dear life.
A man was the last thing she needed now that she’d finally proven herself worthy of being on Alpha’s frontline—especially a man like Vince Franklin. Copyright 2017 April Hunt