The complete, three-book series, Viper Force, includes Fearless, Ruthless, & Reckless.
Hunky Navy men who are determined to save the women they love and spunky, kick-ass heroines who will do the same for the Navy men who have come into their lives.
Each book is complete, standalone romance with a HEA. No cheating.
On-the-page heat; for the 18+ crowd.
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About the Book
Viper Force Boxed Set
by Marlie May
May 30, 2020
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A Viper Force Novel
© 2019 Marlie May
Instinct told me to run.
As I hurried down the path between the campground and the lake, the forest loomed around me. Air heavy with the scent of decomposed leaves and earth filled my lungs. It hadn’t rained for weeks, and brittle grass crunched beneath my sandals like tiny bones.
And while it had to be at least eighty out, my skin prickled with goosebumps.
Switching my tote bag from my weaker to my stronger arm, I deliberately slowed my pace. Told my heart to stop racing. If anyone saw me scurrying like a spooked rabbit, they wouldn’t believe that for the past ten years, I’d traveled the world all by myself. I’d walked through the countryside near Cairo. Spent days backpacking on the Isle of Crete. I’d even hiked for a month in the Kalahari region of South Africa. More often than not, I hadn’t known where I’d wind up the next day, let alone where I’d lay my head that night.
And now, I was so chickenshit, I could barely find the courage to walk through a wooded campground alone.
“Here’s the white-hot truth,” I whispered to myself. “No one’s going to snatch you up and carry you away.” This was Maine, the laid-back place I’d grown up in. Not Istanbul, where my confidence had been shattered.
It wasn’t easy facing the fear I’d lived with for three months, but I’d come camping this weekend with my older brother to find a way to start moving past it.
I emerged out onto a beach that sloped down to the lake. Ahead, the water gleamed, blue glass broken by only a few boaters and swimmers. On the shore, two little girls splashed under their mom’s hovering gaze. A bald man sat on the dock with his feet dangling in the water. And farther out, teenagers hooted as they cannonballed off a float.
“See?” I mumbled. “You’re fine.”
A solo walk was the first challenge I’d set for myself. Next up? Swimming alone. After staking out a chair with my towel, I pulled off my sundress and waded into the lake. A sweaty mess after helping my brother set up our campsite, the cool water gliding over my skin felt fantastic. I turned onto my back and floated, my hair tickling my shoulders like blonde seaweed. The sun beat down, dulling my senses, and I relaxed.
Pushing my resolve, I flipped over and swam away from shore, making for the closest float. My brisk crawl soon brought me within reach, and I tapped the top of the wooden frame to tick off another accomplishment. Grinning, I gave myself an imaginary pat on the back, then turned and paddled back to the beach.
My self-confidence growing with each test, I strode from the water. I dried off and pulled on my sundress, then sat and buried my heels in the sand. Laziness sunk into my bones.
“What an awesome day,” I said, squinting at the lake.
The woman minding her daughters turned and smiled. “Gorgeous, isn’t it?”
“Definitely.” Times like this lived to be captured, and who better to record them than a photographer? Pulling my camera from my tote bag, I took pictures of the trees reflecting on the water. The little girls splashing on the shore. I zoomed in on a grasshopper climbing to the top of a blade of grass and, tilting sideways, took a selfie with the grasshopper. I tossed my camera back into my tote, grabbed my paperback, and was soon sucked into the story.
Until a crack rang out in the forest behind me.
Shifting around, I peered over my shoulder but saw nothing.
Another snap. As if something—no, someone—had stepped on a stick.
Rising, I gnawed on my lower lip while staring toward the woods. Where the sun barely reached, a shadow darted from one tree to another.
I gulped. “Who’s there?”
The cry of a loon flew across the lake, and I jumped.
A quick look around told me that while I’d been absorbed in my book, everyone else had left.
I was alone.
Spooked, I stuffed my feet into my sandals. With my tote held against my chest, I rushed up the path. Not watching where I was going—too busy gaping at the dense woods surrounding me—I stumbled over a root, barely catching myself before falling. I groaned and hobbled on, pushing past my stinging foot like I’d pushed past the pain when a man snapped my wrist three months ago.
Dull thuds came up behind me, making me bolt. As my sandals slammed the ground, my breath came in frantic spurts, and my heart thundered. Reaching the end of the path, I raced across the open, grassy area in the center of the campground, making for the log cabin changing rooms in the middle. If I could get inside a room, I could lock the door. I’d be safe.
A gust of wind shot hair into my eyes. Campfire smoke swirled around me. A dog barked. But two giggling kids chasing a butterfly nearby made me slow my steps and come to a halt.
I gazed over my shoulder.
“Of course,” I ground out. “It was just my imagination.”
So much for challenging my fear.
My shoulders sagged, and disappointment burned like acid through my belly. Did I really think someone would harm me while I was out in the open like this? The campground was filled with people getting ready for the weekend. If I screamed, someone would jump to my defense.
Few jumped to your defense last time. The majority had looked away as if men kidnapping women off the street was part of an ordinary day.
I hated that a random sound in the woods could send me into a full-blown panic.
With a sigh, I started up the stairs, but tripped, landing on the deck. Rising, I rubbed my aching wrist. As I brushed the dirt off my knees, I stared toward the path. A man dressed in jeans and a hoodie stood in the shadows. Was he watching me?
Pulse jumping, I slunk against the plank wall, wishing I could melt through the panels. I reached back and pulled open the closest changing room door and slid inside, standing still while my vision adjusted to the dark.
My towel fell from my limp fingers, landing on the floor by my feet.
I’d walked in on a naked man.
He stood with his back to me, his wet swim shorts a tangled bundle near his feet. While my eyes widened, he lifted a towel and wiped his face. A bead of water trailed down his spine from his short, coal black hair. The tail end of a phoenix tattoo, created from more colors than a sunrise on Kilimanjaro, curved along his back and around the top of his shoulder.
He smoothed the towel across his chest, trapezoids flexing as he worked the material lower.
Leave, before he realizes you’re here.
I eased my foot back, but it hit the metal trash can, making a clang ring out in the room. Spinning, I faced away from him. “Oh, shit, I’m sorry.”
He grunted. “Thought I locked the door.”
“I’m really sorry.” My cheeks couldn’t get any hotter if I’d spent a day at the beach without sunscreen. “I…I thought someone was chasing me on the path from the lake, and I didn’t look before barging in.”
“Chasing you?” Clothing rustled, and he came up beside me, the white towel slung around his narrow hips. A small towel, it barely covered his butt cheeks. Not that I was looking that closely.
Mortified, I kept my gaze directed downward.
“I’ll take a look around outside. But first, here.” He pried a small piece of wood off the rough-cut wall and handed it to me.
“Thanks?” I stared down at it. Shaped like a wedge, it was wide on one end and narrow on the other. “What do I do with it?”
“After I leave, press it in here.” He slid his fingertip along the thin gap between the door and frame. “I did lock the door, but the lock must be broken. This’ll keep anyone from entering without your permission.”
Who was this man, and how did he think of things like this?
“You’ll know it’s me returning because I’ll knock hard twice, wait three seconds, and then knock once softly.”
“Okay.” I tightened my grip on the piece of wood, savoring the control it would give me over the situation.
Like a knight in shining—well, white-towel—armor, he strode outside, leaving me alone in silence broken only by my thumping heart.
After using the wedge on the door, I turned and propped my back against the wall. Shoved my damp hair off my face. And tried to slow my pulse, which still raced double-time.
He returned and used the series of knocks, and I let him back inside. Hovering beside me, his chest rose and fell softly.
What should I say? The thought of meeting his gaze made me cringe. I’d already drooled over his backside. No need to get caught checking out his front. “Anyone out there?”
His hand lifted toward me before dropping to his side. “Nope. Didn’t see anyone suspicious hanging around.”
I’d heard his voice before, but where? Maybe in town or overseas. Traveling the world had introduced me to more people than I’d ever recall.
He cleared his throat. “Are you okay?”
I needed to pay attention to the conversation, not the gruff cadence of his voice. His abs. Or his hips, barely covered by the damp towel. Flutters sprang up in my belly and heat rushed into my cheeks, which had to be scarlet by now. Fortunately, while my brain had gone on vacation, my tongue was still on the job. “Yeah, I’m okay. It was probably nothing. I must’ve imagined the whole thing.”
Just like all the other times, when I could swear I heard someone outside my apartment, only to beg my brother to come over for an investigation that revealed nothing. With each incident, I lost more of my pride. There was nothing worse than turning from a strong, independent woman into a whimpering, cowering shadow of herself.
The man strode toward the bench. “Let me get dressed. I’ll wait for you outside while you change and then walk with you to your campsite.”
How simple it would be to let everyone protect me. But I hadn’t come here this weekend to let fear rule. “Thanks, but I’m all right.” A glance over my shoulder sent me whirling back to face the door again because he’d dropped the towel and was lifting clothing from the bench. Do not think about his cute butt. I tugged on the knob. “I’ll…umm, see you around?”
Wonderful. See you around. So much for possessing a working tongue.
I ran outside before he could reply and hurried down the steps. With my lower lip pinched between my teeth, I paused to scan the area, but no one looked my way. The hooded man was gone.
A stick lay half-buried in the grass by my feet. I hefted it, feeling incredibly stupid, but a heck of a lot safer. Weapon in hand, I headed for the shady section where my older brother, Eli, and I had set up our campsite.
Families bustled around me, erecting pop-up campers and screen rooms. Kids rode bikes and scooters on the path. Excitement rang out in the air. As a kid, I’d spent most of my weekends camping at Glenridge Mountain with Eli and Mom. Dad left us when I was five and Eli eight, so it had just been we three. Mom was away until next week, and it had been ten years, but Eli and I had decided to resurrect the tradition.
Two six-packs of soda sitting on the picnic table told me Eli had returned from his trip into town.
Feeling silly for carrying a stick, like I expected a pack of coyotes to attack any minute, I tossed it into the fire pit.
Eli emerged from his tent shirtless and limped over to the cooler. After coming too close to an IED in the Middle East, he’d been medically discharged. Regular PT had helped him maintain the bulk he’d gained during his years with the Navy, and leave it to him to flaunt it. A teenager almost ran into a tree while gawking over her shoulder.
“Hey,” he said. “How was the water?”
“Chilly, but refreshing.”
Eli slumped on a chair near the campfire ring, a soda can in his hand. He popped the top and took a long swallow. “I forgot to tell you earlier. One of my high school buddies is camping with us this weekend. Hope that’s okay.”
My heart flipped. Back in high school, Cooper Talon had been tall, skinny, and I could barely find his eyes behind his black hair and thick glasses. I’d been hyper-aware of him, unsure why my skin tingled whenever he came near. At fifteen to their seventeen, I’d been waiting forever to turn into the beauty Mom had predicted, one who could snag any guy I wanted. I’d wanted Cooper. There was something about the way he held his shoulders when he talked to my mom. How his tongue peeked from his mouth when he and Eli played Xbox. That cute nose wrinkle when he sat at the kitchen table doing homework.
I’d put on my best flirt whenever he was around, but it made no difference. He’d only grunted when I spoke to him. And he’d usually shown me his back, rather than his front, whenever I walked into the room. Talk about stomping on my burgeoning crush. I hadn’t seen him since he joined the Navy—the Seabees—after he graduated from high school twelve years ago. Last I’d heard, he was stationed in California.
That voice in the changing room…Of course.
Eli nudged his soda can toward the open grassy area. “There’s Coop now.”
Naked-man strode our way, dressed in khaki shorts and a patterned brown tee. Eighteen-year-old Cooper Talon had given me heart palpitations. A fully mature Cooper might bring on cardiac arrest.
He stalled in front of me and grunted.
I blinked up at him, and my voice squeaked. “Cooper.”
“In the flesh.” His deep, raspy tone sparked through me. There was no mistaking the humor in his gray-blue eyes. Beautiful eyes he no longer hid behind thick glasses.
Stepping forward, I hugged him. His free hand slid around my waist, and his scent filled my senses with fresh air and warm skin, plus a subtle hint of spice.
“You look great, Ginny,” he said by my ear. “Nice to see you.”
I snorted. “Nice to see you, too.” Eli’s buddy and my old high school crush. I couldn’t equate that shy teenager with this gorgeous man holding me now.
Releasing me, he stepped back. “No one was here earlier, so I left my things in my trunk. I’ll go get them.”
“Need help?” I asked.
“Nope, I’ve got it.” He flopped his wet suit and towel over the line we’d strung between two trees and walked toward the parking lot above the campground.
I stared at his backside as he moved. Even clothed, he had a nice butt. Nice legs, too, with just the right amount of hair dusting his calves. “When did Cooper grow up?”
Eli frowned. “Huh?”
“Nothing.” I shouldn’t have spoken. No need to let on that my libido had locked onto this Cooper as easily as it had the younger version twelve years ago. Striding to the clothesline, I pulled off Cooper’s suit and towel to hang them properly.
“You think Coop’s changed that much?” Eli asked as he stood. Wincing, he rubbed his thigh.
I shrugged and clipped my towel beside Cooper’s. I needed to get over my absorption with my brother’s friend. For all I knew, he was married with three kids. Through the years, Eli had shared details about Cooper’s deployments in the Middle East, but nothing personal. “You know if Cooper has a girlfriend?”
Eli’s brow narrowed, filling me in on the fact that my interest had come across beyond casual. “You’re not looking at Coop like that, are you? Don’t even go there. You moved home—for good, you said. And Coop lives out west. He’s career military. I doubt he’s ready to move back to Crescent Cove when his battalion plans to deploy overseas soon.”
“I only asked a general question.”
Eli strolled closer. “I’m not warning you off—”
“Because you know I’d deck you if you did.” Try to, anyway, if I could reach. My brother—and Cooper—had a good foot on my five-foot-four frame.
“That’s not what I meant at all.” He groaned and scratched his head, mussing his thick blonde hair that was much like mine, only shorter. “You can go out with whoever you want. You know that. But I’d hate to see you get hurt. Coop’s…”
I couldn’t read the emotions flicking across his face. “Cooper’s what?”
“Not settling down material.”
Ducking underneath the line, I eased past him. “Maybe I’m not settling down material, either.”
“What about Zen?”
“He and I were nowhere near settled.” I’d met Zen in Paris over a year ago, and we traveled together after that. At his urging, we’d gone to Croatia and then to Istanbul. I hadn’t loved him. If anything, I’d stayed with him because seeking the perfect photo could be lonely, and he was a decent companion. “We broke up ages ago. Before…”
If only I could forget what happened in Istanbul as easily as I’d forgotten my former boyfriend.
The horror of that moment spiked through me. If Zen had been with me that day, those men might not have—
“Seems to me you’ve become the settling down kind, now,” Eli said. “Bought a building with an apartment on the second floor. Opened a photography business that’s doing great already.”
I fumbled with my tent flap. “I didn’t mean anything when I asked about his personal life.” Liar. “I was just making small talk.” Double liar. “I’m not interested in anything more than friendship with Cooper.” I nodded to solidify my argument. A third lie piled on top of the others. From Eli’s snort, I hadn’t convinced him any more than I had myself.
Gravel crunched behind me, and I turned.
“I dropped my keys.” Cooper bent forward to grab them off the ground. A speculative gleam filled his eyes when he directed them my way. “I’ll go get that tent now.”
Perfect. Nothing good ever came from gossiping about someone behind their back.
Squirming, I stepped into my tent and zipped the door closed behind me. Hunched over because I couldn’t stand upright, I untied my bathing suit top and tossed it aside, and shimmied out of my bottoms. Looking around, I frowned. Where were my shorts and t-shirt? I could swear I’d left them on the foot of my air mattress.
The idea that someone had been inside my tent and moved them gave me pause.
“Do not do this to yourself,” I whispered. “You’ve freaked out once today already. Your stuff’s around here somewhere.”
Calm words couldn’t prevent my gaze from flicking around the tent interior, seeking someone lurking inside the tight space with me. Although it was humid, the warmth barely penetrated my skin.
My gaze was pulled to my pillow, where a mini-tile painting waited for me, and my body loosened. While I was swimming, Eli must’ve dropped off his latest treasure.
Moving around the mattress, I found my clothing lying on the floor beside it and dressed quickly. I flopped onto the bed and studied the tiny painting of the view from the top of Cadillac Mountain. It had been years since we’d hiked to the peak together, and I smiled at the memory.
As a teenager, Eli had started painting with watercolors before moving on to oils. One of his larger works hung in my living room. A few weeks ago, he’d started leaving me little painted tiles like this one. The last had been of Acadia Park, a place we’d visited a few times while growing up. I tucked the tile inside my backpack for safekeeping, planning to add it to my mini art collection.
While unzipping the tent flap to step outside, I renewed my determination to regain my life.
Istanbul was a random event.
It wouldn’t haunt me any longer.
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About Marlie May
MARLIE MAY was born in New England and grew up on a dairy farm in rural Maine. She graduated from the University of Maine, and then Kennebec Community College, with degrees in International Relations and Nursing. She writes contemporary romance and romantic suspense with plenty of heat, laugh-out-loud moments, twisty suspense, and a guaranteed happily ever after. Marlie May is a two-time RWA® Golden Heart finalist.
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