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Taking What's His

By´╝ÜDiane Alberts

Chapter One

Holt Cunningham sat at the crowded bar, staring into his empty glass, and couldn’t help but wonder how the hell he’d gotten there, and if he’d ever feel normal again. A year ago, he’d been in combat, kicking ass and taking names. There hadn’t been anything to worry about except avoiding bullets. He’d been invincible. Undefeatable.

And then…he’d been defeated.

All it had taken was one well placed IED and bam. His whole life had changed in an instant. He wasn’t a Marine anymore, everyone from his platoon was dead, and now he was a fucking IT guy at Shillings Agency.

He had no idea what to do with the rest of his fucking life. He couldn’t sleep more than an hour without waking up in a fucking cold sweat. Barely ate. The only things that filled the empty void inside of him that screamed out in agony were meaningless one-night stands and booze, but even those had stopped working recently.

That wouldn’t stop him from trying again, though.

He was a stubborn ass like that.

The door opened, and the cold winter’s night air hit him. He huddled closer to the bar. “Welcome to fucking Maine,” he muttered.

The bartender came up. “Hey. Where’d your friend go?”

His friend and co-worker at the agency, Gordon Waybrook, had tossed back a drink and then left. He’d been down in the dumps over some princess chick that wouldn’t marry him. Why any man would want to get married was beyond Holt, but to each his own.

“He had to go.” Holt pushed his glass across the bar. “I’ll have another.”

The bartender, Mike, tightened his lips. “You don’t look so good, man. Maybe you should call it quits and go home.”

“If I wanted an evaluation, I’d go to a…to a…shrink.” He gripped the edge of the bar tightly, angry that the word had eluded him. “I didn’t. I came to a bar. Now get me my drink.”

Mike jerked the glass away. “We might be friends, but that doesn’t give you an excuse to be a dick. One more, and then I’m cutting you off.”

Holt watched him go, already regretting his words. “I’m sorry,” he whispered to no one, since Mike had already left. That was something that was messed up in his head, too. He didn’t think things through before speaking. What was the point, when nine times out of ten his words still came out all messed up?

Someone sat beside him, and he glanced over. It was a woman with strawberry blonde hair. She was slim and short, and she smelled like flowers. He couldn’t make out her face, but her profile looked gorgeous. She had a small, pert nose and high cheekbones. Her lashes were long and thick. Everything about her drew his gaze, and he couldn’t look away.

As soon as she settled, she turned and smiled at him. He froze, all intelligent words leaving his brain as well as his mouth. She was…she was…

Beautiful. She was utterly beautiful.

And totally not for him. He’d ruin a sweet thing like her in seconds.

Her bright hazel eyes met his without hesitance, and when she smiled, two dimples popped out. Her whole face lit up, too. She looked young, but not too young to be in a bar. “Hey,” she said.

He blinked at her. Her voice was magically soft, as if she was singing instead of talking, and he couldn’t think of a single word to say back. So he just stared at her.

Mike came over, saving Holt from replying. As soon as he set down the drink, the bartender turned to the beauty next to him. “What’ll you have?”

“An appletini, please,” she said.

Holt grabbed his drink and stared at it, his heart thumping in his chest, as Mike carded her. He went off to get her order, so she must have been of age, but she couldn’t be much older than twenty-one. She was too fresh faced. Too pure.

A piercing pain hit him, and he winced.

“Hey. Are you okay?” she asked, her voice soft with concern. “Did you have one too many, maybe?”

He wished that were his fucking problem. Turning to her, he tightened his grip on his glass. He was determined not to let his vocabulary slip, and to send her running as quickly as possible. A girl like her shouldn’t be around a guy like him. He was no good. “Yes. I’m fine.”

“Okay.” She smiled. “How are you tonight?”

Feeling like a bastard. “I’m…fine. You?”

“Awful.” She dropped the side of her head on her hand, facing him, and smiled. Jesus, she was too gorgeous to be talking to someone like him. “I’ve had a really bad couple of days, to be honest.”

That seemed to be going around. Instead of snarling back at her to scare her away, like he should have, he wanted to…help her. Make her feel better. “What happened?”

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