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A SEAL's Strength (Military Match Book 2) by JM Stewart (1)

Gabriel Donovan frowned at his reflection in the full-length mirror, then glanced down at his ten-year-old daughter, Charlotte. She stood in front of him, her gaze intent on her task of knotting his tie. “Why the hell am I doing this again?”

Char frowned her disapproval and darted a glance at him. “You owe the swear jar a dollar, Dad. And you’re doing this because you need a date. It’s time.”

With a heavy sigh, he stuffed a hand in his right front pocket, pulled out a dollar bill and held it out to her. The jar was full already, and the money in there was all his. Some example he was setting.

Char stuffed the bill into her pocket and resumed her task. He turned back to his reflection, frowning at the dress shirt and tie she’d insisted he wear. At least he’d won the jeans argument.

He let his shoulders slump. The whole evening set out before him exhausted him, and it hadn’t even started. “I am so not cut out for this. I miss your mother.”

Life with Julia had been simple. Reliable. She’d been a constant. He’d been cocky enough back in college to think he was good with women, but he hadn’t dated in…hell, before Char was born. He was so far out of practice he might as well be a gangly, uncertain teenager all over again.

Char looped one end of the tie over the other and tipped her head back to look up at him. “I miss her, too, Dad, but you promised you wouldn’t be sad forever.”

While her face remained stoic, her scowl set firm, he didn’t miss the worry and sadness that crept into her eyes. Julia’s death had been hard on them both but on Char most of all. His baby sister, Molly, had told him a little girl needed her mother. That she might be right was another reason why he was going on this date. They both could use a change.

He cupped Char’s chin in his palm. She looked like a younger version of Julia. The same auburn hair, a shade darker than her mother’s. The same oval face and cute, upturned nose. All she’d gotten from him were her hazel eyes and unruly curls. Still, every time he saw her, his chest ached. He wasn’t ready to start dating again. Marriage and family had suited him fine. “You’re too old for your own good, you know that? You shouldn’t be taking care of me. You should just be a kid.”

Char was smart like her mother, too. She got straight As in school with little effort, constantly had her nose in a book, and since Julia’s death, seemed to have made it her mission to take care of him. It’s what they’d done since Julia got sick, how they’d gotten by: they took care of each other. Her enthusiasm for his dating again came from a more basic need, though. She wanted him to stop being sad.

At least, that’s what she’d said last week when he’d finally given in and agreed to his sister’s cockamamie scheme. The problem was, he wasn’t sure how to stop being sad. How do you stop missing someone when you’d give both arms to have them back? He also worried about Char. She was positive now, but if it came down to it, would she really accept a new woman’s place in his life?

The heavy emotion in Char’s eyes lightened, and she shot him a mischievous smile. That was something else she’s gotten from him—her playful nature. “Somebody has to take care of you. We’d eat out every night if I didn’t make you cook.”

A twinge of guilt tightened his stomach. She was right, of course. He couldn’t cook to save his life. Julia had always taken care of that. Along with a host of other things, like laundry and grocery shopping. After his parents’ deaths, Molly had taken care of what he’d always considered the “girl stuff.” Hell, even in the military someone else had always done the cooking. He hated the grocery store. It was too damn crowded and too damn bright. If you asked him, the drive-through was just easier all around.

“I don’t know what you have against takeout. Most kids your age could live on the stuff.” Gabe turned back to his reflection and poked a finger into his collar. “Is the tie really necessary?”

He hadn’t worn one since Julia’s funeral. Spending most of his day at the custom motorcycle and repair shop he co-owned with Marcus Denali, a fellow SEAL he’d served with, he had his hands in engine grease the majority of the day. Anything more than a T-shirt would only end up grimy anyway.

Char slipped one end of the tie into the loop she’d made. “Yes. It’s nice. Plus, it’s blue. That’s what they said, right? You have to wear blue so she’ll know it’s you?”

He sighed and stared at his reflection. For the first time since Julia died three years ago, he had a freakin’ date, from a dating service, no less. The wife of one of his mechanics owned the exclusive matchmaking company Military Match. Trent Lawson, also a SEAL and the guy who did most of his custom detailing, had used the place with good results. He and his fiancée, Lauren, were getting married in three months.

“Besides, I like this tie. Mom gave it to you for Christmas before she died. It’ll be good luck.” Char readjusted his tie and patted his chest, then stood back to eye her handiwork. A self-pleased smile etched across her face. “There. You look perfect.”

He shook his head. “I must be out of my mind.”

He pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. Three years alone, and he still wasn’t ready for this. Though he was lonely. He missed the simple things, like not having to sleep alone and waking to warm, soft curves. He also wanted—needed—to finally move beyond the pain and monotony his life had become since Julia’s death. He wanted to actually live…not just go through the motions. If only because she couldn’t.

What he hoped for tonight he hadn’t a clue. Companionship? To get laid? Someone else to talk to besides Char and Molly and the guys at the shop? Hell. He’d figure out the rest when he got there. At the very least, it would get Molly and Char off his case.

The doorbell sounded through the house, and Char’s brows shot up, her eyes widening with excitement.

“That’s Aunt Molly!” She darted out of the room, her feet thumping down the hall.

Gabe turned from the full-length floor mirror to the picture on the dresser beside him. He touched the glass, tracing the curve of Julia’s forehead with his thumb. She’d been healthy then. Alive and vibrant. Her smile still took his breath away. “Wish me luck, Jules.”

He drew a deep breath, trying his damnedest to ignore the nausea swirling in his stomach, and followed Char. Emerging into the front room of the house, he found her in the foyer with Molly. Since Julia’s death, Molly had taken to helping him with Char. He was grateful to her on that front, because he was in over his head. He hadn’t a clue how to raise a little girl. If it were up to him, Char would be in the shop with him, learning how to take apart an engine. Julia had always insisted little girls needed a feminine role model. Luckily for him, Char adored her aunt Molly and loved getting to play with Molly’s three girls.

Molly glanced up as he entered the living room. A slow smiled curled across her face, amusement gleaming in her eyes. “Wow. Look at you. Hot stuff.”

He glared at her as he approached the foyer. “Stop.”

Molly’s smile drooped. She turned to Char and tousled her hair. “Why you don’t go pack your stuff for the weekend. Give me a minute with your dad.”

Char shot him a sideways scowl. “Cheer him up, Aunt Molly. He’ll ruin his date.”

With a shake of her head, Char strode for her bedroom. Once she was out of hearing range, Molly turned worried eyes on him.

Gabe held up a hand, stopping the encouragement he’d heard a dozen times since she’d taken it upon herself to sign him up for this date. “Don’t start with the ‘this is good for you’ crap. I get it. You’re both right. It’s time. But I don’t have to like it.”

Molly let out a heavy sigh, then, just as suddenly, flashed an over-bright smile. “At the very least, hope that you’ll get laid, then.”

His heart stalled, and he darted a panicked glance behind him. Char’s soft voice echoed up the hallway as she sang some upbeat boy-band tune. When he was satisfied she hadn’t overheard Molly’s frank comment, his heart resumed its beat. Gabe turned back to his sister and frowned.

“Jesus, Moll, keep your voice down.” He shouldn’t be surprised she’d said it, though. That was Molly in a nutshell—bold as brass and doing as she pleased. He couldn’t stop his cheeks from blazing all the same. “I don’t need advice on getting laid from my sister.”

She had the nerve to grin at him. “Apparently, you do, because you’re not doing it.”

He glared at her. “Moll…”

She laughed and held up her hands. “All right, all right. At the very least, try to have a good time. Don’t scowl, and for crying out loud, don’t sit there brooding.” She cuffed his shoulder and winked at him. “You had a personality once. Try to dig it up, huh?”

He let out a heavy sigh. She was right. More times than he cared to admit, he’d bitten her head off for worrying about him too much. Hell, the guys at the shop had pointed out the same thing, how snappish he’d become. Marcus had teased him about it the other day, when he’d lost his temper with a supplier over parts that hadn’t come in on time. “You need to get laid, man.”

Also why he’d found himself with a date tonight. Because Marcus was right. He hadn’t had sex with anyone but his left hand since Julia got sick, nearing on four years now. Hell. His freakin’ balls were blue. The thought of warm feminine curves against him made his cock twitch in his jeans. If all he got out of this date was that, he’d consider this whole experience successful.

Char came running back to the door, her backpack stuffed full and slung over her shoulder. She hurled herself against him, wrapping her arms tightly around his waist. “Bye, Daddy. I love you.”

He bent to kiss the top of her head. “I love you, too, sweetheart. Make sure you mind Aunt Molly, okay?”

She leaned back, hazel eyes wide and anxious and filled with too much worry. “Promise you’ll try to have a good time? Mom made me promise that I wouldn’t let you sit around and be sad. So you have to promise.”

A thick lump formed in his throat. Slayed. Completely, one hundred percent slayed by a ten-year-old.

He brushed the curls out of her face. “I promise I’ll try. Now go.”

She hugged him again, then slipped her hand into Molly’s.

Molly tossed him a friendly smile. “I’ll have her back Sunday morning, as usual.”

He hooked his thumbs in his belt loops. “Thanks, Moll. I really appreciate your help, you know. Next weekend’s my turn.”

In exchange for her help with Char, he took Molly’s three girls every other weekend, so that she and her husband, Leo, could have a little time to themselves.

Warmth bloomed in her eyes, her smile softening. “Thanks.” Then she punched his shoulder and pursed her lips. “Now you have to promise me you’re at least going to try to like this woman.”

He couldn’t help the soft laugh that left him. Despite being six years younger, Molly had always had a strong motherly streak. An annoying one.

He opened the front door and nodded at the porch beyond. “Will you guys get out? I’ll never get there with you two hanging around nagging me to death.”

Molly rolled her eyes, but ushered Char out all the same, calling to him as she made her way to her car, parked at the curb. “I’m going to call you tomorrow morning. You’d better not answer.”

He shook his head and closed the door. Alone in the deafening silence, he heaved a sigh. The knots in his gut twisted all over again. This particular dating agency’s “thing” was supposedly the initial meeting. They set the time and place, and you simply showed up. All he knew about his date tonight was that she was a blond attorney and she’d also be wearing something blue. Hence the damn tie.

According to Karen, the service’s owner and his mechanic Mike’s wife, the idea was to make the initial meeting seem more like a chance encounter. Add a little mystery. Trent, however, had told him all it really meant was that he’d have a blind date. Trent had loathed that aspect and had offered the information almost as a warning.

Gabe glanced down at his sneakers and stroked a hand down his thigh. At this point, he wasn’t above a blind date for his first-ever venture into the land of dating again. He only hoped she wouldn’t mind that he was missing the lower part of his left leg.

*  *  *

Seated on a hard park bench, looking out over the waters of Lake Washington, Stephanie Mason bounced her knee. Nervous anticipation flooded through her. She glanced down at herself, straightening her jacket. A half hour ago, when Lauren, one of her two best friends, suggested she wear this cobalt-blue halter top, it had seemed perfect. A chance to shed the suits she wore to the law firm every day, sexy without being too revealing. Now she had her doubts. It seemed too tame.

Were she going to a club, she’d have worn something a little more revealing. She wasn’t a stranger to the dating scene, knew how to flirt, how to dress to lure a man’s attention. But she’d done flings for so long now she’d forgotten how to behave on a real date. Lauren, though, the more sensible one of their trio, had pointed out that showing her goods wasn’t appropriate for a first date she hoped would lead to more than a one-night stand. The question was, would her date like tame? Or should she have insisted on something sexier?

She hitched up the sleeve of her jacket, glanced at her watch for the third time in ten minutes, and heaved a sigh. Her first real date in two years and the guy was late. Okay, so only by five minutes, but in her profession punctuality was everything. That he was late told her a lot. Namely, that he thought so little of her he couldn’t be bothered to show up on time.

So much for the old adage “third time’s the charm.” This was her third date through Military Match, and it wasn’t starting out any better than the others had. The first guy she’d met had been so cheap he’d practically squeaked. They’d gone to a matinee show, and he’d paid for dinner with coupons. Freaking coupons. The second guy had spent the whole night talking about himself.

Figures Lauren would go on one date and meet the love of her life. So far Steph had managed only to find guys who were all wrong for her.

Steph glanced down at her top again. Okay, so maybe she should give Lauren more credit. Steph and Mandy, best friend number two, had dressed Lauren conservatively for her date. Lauren had insisted the outfit was more seductive than she was comfortable with, but really, it was conservative by Steph’s standards. After all, the top had shown hardly any cleavage, and Lauren had worn jeans and not the flirty little miniskirt Steph had brought over. And look how her date had turned out. She was marrying Mandy’s older brother, Trent, a man she’d known for practically her whole life.

Steph lifted her face to the beautiful sky and stared at the few stars peeking out from between the clouds. She’d known Mandy for two years now, since the day she’d hired the cute brunette to help plan her wedding. When Alec had left her standing at the altar, looking and feeling like an utter fool, Mandy had been the friend she needed. She’d introduced her to Lauren. The two had been childhood friends. That night Mandy had insisted on a girls’ night at home. They’d had so much fun, they’d immediately made it a weekly thing.

If ever she’d had sisters, those two would’ve been it.

Which was why she’d taken Lauren’s wardrobe suggestions. More than anything, she wanted to meet someone special. She wanted what Lauren had found—her forever guy. A man with a soft heart and a tender touch. Someone worth sticking around for a while with, but who’d be okay with letting her take things slowly as she finally found her feet again. Since that day, two years ago now, when Alec had stood her up at the altar, she’d been living a lie, determined never to get hurt like that again.

But the truth was, the endless flings she’d once delighted in had worn thin. Deep down she wasn’t a single kind of girl. Watching the men leave at the end of the night and then waking alone every morning only served to make her feel exactly that—alone.

It was time to get back out there. Time to risk putting her heart on the line.

Steph turned to scan the area around her again. Even though it was April in the Pacific Northwest, the night was gorgeous. Not quite sixty, with lovely cool breezes and a clear sky, a few stars peeking out from behind the clouds. They usually didn’t see days like this until nearly July. Any other time, she’d have put on her Nikes and gone for a run, simply for an excuse to enjoy the break from the ceaseless rain. Apparently, she wasn’t alone in that sentiment. A half dozen or so people littered the area.

Her date could be any one of them. Not that she’d recognize him if she saw him. All the woman from Military Match had told her was that he was “huge,” had dark hair, and would be wearing something blue. She was told to meet him by the beach, here at Chism Park.

Restless with the need to move, she surged to her feet and turned in a slow circle. Halfway around, a sight stopped her cold. Some twenty feet or so down the sidewalk, a huge hulk of a man stood doing exactly what she was. Hands stuffed in his pockets, he looked around, as if he were waiting for someone.

The sheer size of him, along with the width of his strong shoulders and the dark hair licking at the collar of his black leather jacket sent her stomach into overdrive. The ache of familiarity flooded her veins, her heart beating as if it were trying to escape her chest.

Gabe.

Of all the people to run into, and tonight of all nights. God, he looked exactly the same as he had the last time she’d seen him. Had it really been eleven years? He stood six foot six inches of intimidating, delicious man. She knew from experience every inch of him was solid and every muscle rippled when he moved. Even now his well-fitting jeans clung to his tight ass and showcased the power in his strong thighs.

His hair curled over his forehead, the ends whipping in the slight breeze. Her fingers itched with remembrance. How many times had she brushed those soft curls out of his eyes?

Back in her undergrad days, those big hands and that muscular body had given her so much pleasure. Of all her lovers over the years, he was the one she couldn’t forget. He’d been one of the few to truly rock her world. The energy they’d worked up in each other could easily have powered a small city. Eleven years ago she and Gabe had fallen into a “friends-with-benefits” relationship. They’d hung out, discussing classes and dick professors while sharing cartons of Chinese as often as they’d fucked.

He’d also been one of the few to manage the feat of capturing her heart. Her one and only foray into how to do everything wrong. She’d fallen in love with her best friend. But back then Gabe had been focused on his career. He’d always given her the impression that their relationship was nothing more than friendship and casual sex to him. He’d proven it when he’d walked out of her life and never looked back.

That he was standing by the beach—the exact spot where she was supposed to meet her date—looking around him as if he were waiting on someone, made her stomach tighten. Was he tonight’s date? Was it even possible?

The thought made her stomach flip-flop. In delicious anticipation. In nerves. In outright fear. What she wanted was to turn around and go home. Neither could she deny that curiosity had her by the heart. She’d thought of him often over the years, and just seeing him had all those questions roaring to the surface all over again. Where he was and what his life was like. The questions beating the hardest in the back of her mind, though, were of the more dangerous sort. Why he’d simply stopped contacting her and what she’d do if she ever saw him again.

Well, if he was her date tonight, she’d face it head-on, because Steph Mason didn’t run from anything.

She drew her shoulders back, plastered on her best “no care in the world” smile, and sauntered in his direction. “Gabriel Donovan.”

His head snapped in her direction, and familiar hazel eyes settled on her. Oh, she didn’t have to see them to know their color. She’d know those eyes anywhere, because she’d spent years trying not to stare at them. Beautiful and intense, they were a mix of chocolate brown and a deep mossy green. They widened as recognition dawned over him. “Stephanie Mason. I’ll be damned.”

As she came to a stop in front of him, she had to tip her head back to look into his face. He stood a good head above her, and she shivered with the power of that broad body.

“The last time I saw you, you were crawling out of my bed.” She attempted to keep the conversation light, but the truth was, Gabe had gotten a phone call that night that had changed his entire world. His parents had died a tragic, senseless death, literally at the wrong place at the wrong time. A robbery attempt gone wrong had left him suddenly in charge of his teenaged sister. Gabe had dropped out of school a week later and moved home to Oregon to take care of Molly.

“Been a long time, Steph.” He grinned, revealing a dazzling smile that eleven years ago would have taken her breath away. Now it sent more memories flooding through her mind. That smile had drawn her in the first time he’d flashed it at her.

“That it has. Your last letter said you’d joined the military, that they were stationing you in California.” They’d kept in touch for about a year after he’d gone home, but after he’d joined the military she’d stopped hearing from him.

He gave an absentminded nod. “Camp Coronado. It’s where I did my BUD/S training.”

Buds training…Where had she heard that term before? Wait a minute… “You were a SEAL?”

He darted a glance at her. “Mm-hmm. Team three. Moved back here about four years ago.”

She nudged him with an elbow. “Seriously impressive.”

He didn’t say anything, but seemed to draw within himself. His gaze slid off to his right, and awkward tension moved over him. She searched her thoughts for something, anything, to pull him out of what seemed to be heavy thoughts, when her gaze settled on his tie. The sapphire blue stood out against the stark white of his shirt.

Her stomach sank into her stilettos. Damn. That tie meant Gabe was her date.

Well, the only thing to do now was face it. The way she did everything.

She drew a deep breath for courage and tugged on his tie. “Blue.”

His gaze snapped back to her, dropped to his tie, then returned to her again. One corner of his mouth hitched. He nodded in her direction, no doubt indicating the similar color of her shirt. Amusement and recognition glinted in his eyes. “Also blue.”

“That makes you the date I’ve been waiting for.” She couldn’t be sure if she wanted to hug the stuffing out of him or puke on his shoes.

He reached up to rub the back of his neck and glanced around him. “Sorry I’m late. Forgot what part of the park we were supposed to meet at. I swore I wrote it down, but I couldn’t find the damn note.”

She lifted a brow. “Nervous?”

For that one small thing, she was eternally grateful. At least she wasn’t the only one coming out of her skin. She’d been fine with her first real date since her breakup with Alec…right up until she’d realized they’d matched her with Gabe. She hadn’t anticipated the power of being in his presence again, either.

He let out an uncomfortable laugh. “Does it show?”

“Nope. You’re as solid as ever. Don’t feel bad. The thought of this date has had my knees shaking all day.” Aiming for light and upbeat, to not let him know seeing him again had unnerved her, she punched him lightly in the shoulder. “How the hell are you?”

“I’m good.” Gabe laughed, his gaze sweeping the length of her. “You haven’t changed a bit. Still as sexy as ever. The hair’s changed, though. You had a pixie cut last I saw you. Long looks good on you.”

The husky timbre of his voice made her nipples tighten. Whether consciously or otherwise, he reached out and pushed her hair back off her shoulder, his fingers brushing the skin of her neck. A full-out shiver swept the length of her spine, landing straight in her panties. God, she was doomed. One touch from him and her body lit up like a firework on the Fourth of July.

“You’re still the same. Same curls.” She reached up, fingering a lock of hair curling over his collar. “Same crooked smile.”

He had lines around his eyes now that weren’t there eleven years ago, but she had to admit she liked them. They lent his appearance a maturity that looked good on him. As if it were possible for Gabe Donovan to get any sexier.

A ghost of a smile flitted across his mouth, there and gone in the blink of an eye. His mouth formed a thin, grim line, and his jaw tightened.

She frowned, trying to comprehend the sudden tension moving over him. That was the second time in five minutes he’d gotten that look on his face. It was subtle but undeniable. Did he have PTSD like Trent? Was he remembering something?

Before she could ask if he was okay, though, he smiled again, this one tight and forced but polite all the same. “How ’bout we go get some dinner?”

She nodded. “Sounds great.”

She shouldn’t. History reminded her that nothing with Gabe would ever be what she wanted or needed at this point in her life. After all, she’d been little more to him than great sex. The way he’d walked out of her life and not looked back had proven that. He was here, though, and she couldn’t deny that she’d been dying for eleven years to catch up with him.

While she was at it, maybe he’d share what was on his mind, and maybe she’d finally get the answers to all those questions he’d left her with.