Walking into the crowded bar and grill, Mark spotted his team immediately. Damn, he loved these guys. Mark had served with a variety of military teams. This one was the ultimate group. Each of the men had specialized skills that enhanced their ability to achieve the challenging goals they often faced. They also had something even more important to bond them.
He quickly crossed the bustling area to join the group. Each man had found his special match. Mark shook his head. If only Cricket wasn’t so young…
“Captain!” all of the men called in greeting as Mark approached.
Pulling out a chair, he settled in to socialize with his team. Immediately, he was drawn into a discussion of their training session from that day. “Okay, the next time we’re in a bad situation, feel free to thank me for torturing you today with sprints,” Mark commented and dodged the flying coasters that his team zinged at him with great accuracy.
The good-natured ribbing had just died out when a petite blonde approached and tapped his shoulder. Mark looked up to greet her with a genuine affection. “Hi, sweetheart.”
“Can I ask you a question, Mark?”
“Sure, Cricket. What’s up?” Mark lounged back in his chair.
“Can we talk alone?”
With a nod, he stood and followed her a short distance from the table, where his team continued to enjoy an evening free of work duties. He leaned in to talk to her as the hubbub of the popular bar surrounded them.
“Mark, would you like to come over after I get off work?” Cricket invited with a smile.
He noted her hands twisting together at her waist. She was nervous. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Cricket.” When the tentative smile on her face faded, he knew he’d hurt her.
“Listen, Cricket…” he began, trying to walk a tightrope between trying to protect her from getting saddled with someone twenty years older than she was, but also knowing that Cricket was the Little he’d been searching for.
The young woman’s expression hardened, and she shook her head to ward off whatever excuse would come from his mouth this time. “No, you listen. I can’t do this anymore, Mark. You have to make a decision. Are you interested in a serious relationship with me or not?” Cricket exploded.
“Cricket, I don’t want to keep you from finding someone your own age,” Mark countered. He hated seeing the tears well in her eyes. If only he was younger, or she was older.
“Language, Cricket,” he warned.
“I’m just calling it what it is. You worry about robbing the cradle. You think I’ll wake up someday and regret being stuck with an old guy. What you don’t worry about is how much time we’re wasting. I may be young, but I know what I want. You. Not because you’re older and wiser, but because I know you’re the daddy I’ve always dreamed of finding.”
“No one knows what they really want as a kid. I thought I’d be a professional baseball player.” Mark tried to lighten the conversation.
“How dare you assume I don’t know what I want and need! Go hide your head in your ancient, all-knowing pile of crap, Mark. I’m done,” Cricket hissed at him. “I’m finished being included with the other Littles’ activities while knowing I’m an imposter because you won’t claim me. That’s not fair to them and it’s definitely not fair to me. I deserve better.”
Mark watched her stomp away, his heart breaking with every step she took.
“She’s right,” a southern drawl came from behind him.
“Mind your own business, Tex.” Mark didn’t need any help from his team. He’d resisted being intimate with Cricket. If he made her his completely, Mark knew his heart could never bow out. The entrancing woman should find someone better for her. If there hadn’t been as big of a gap between their ages, he wouldn’t have hesitated—but she could have been his daughter.
His gaze followed Cricket as she stopped at the bar to pick up an order. The bartender leaned forward to ask her a question as she wiped away the tears from her cheeks. The angry glare from the man filling orders speared Mark.
“Don’t order any drinks for a while, Captain,” Doniphan suggested. As the team medic, he always looked out for the well-being of the others.
Mark turned to look at his team, who’d just witnessed the entire scene. “I may have hot sauce in my beer for a while,” Mark admitted.
A hush descended on the previously boisterous table. Everyone looked at the bottles in their hands.
“Our little girls are going to flay us alive, Mark. They love Cricket. We love Cricket. Everyone knows that you’re perfect together—but you. Maybe you need to look at this from another angle,” Jax recommended.
“Hi, guys. I’m taking over for Cricket. Need any refills?” River asked from behind Mark.
Members of the elite team all lifted their bottles toward the young waitress to indicate their orders. Mark simply held up his hand to signal he didn’t need anything. When she didn’t even glance his way, he knew it was a good thing he wasn’t thirsty. River wasn’t going to bring him anything.
With their choices memorized, River took a second to drop a kiss on her daddy’s lips before bumping his shoulder with her hip. Moving adeptly through the crowd, she went to put their order in.
“I hope the Littles will understand that I want the best for Cricket,” Mark said softly.
“Good luck with that,” Jax smirked.
When their phones all rang at the same time, the men set down their beers with a groan. Doniphan jogged to the bar to intercept River and settle their bill. He squeezed her tight before jogging out to rejoin the men loading into their vehicles. They had a brief window to grab their gear and hit the airport.
As Mark drove away, he looked back at the entrance to the bar and grill. Cricket stood with her hands clasped in front of her heart next to River. He hated that she’d worry about him. Mark struggled to lock away his concern. The entire team needed him to focus on the mission.
Captain Mark Cunningham strode into the Harbor Bar and Grill just off base. Behind him ranged the rest of his highly skilled team, ready for some time off. He was proud of these men. Mark would fight hard to keep every single one. Each worked well with the others and had the specialized skills needed to survive the dangerous scenarios the powers that be deemed essential.
Always on alert, he knew every team member was scanning the interior for potential threats before allowing themselves to look for their Littles who had chosen to have a night out together in the bar. Mark felt the corners of his mouth tilt up at the sight of three women sitting in a round booth with two servers pausing briefly at the table before scurrying off to take care of their designated areas.
A half-filled pitcher of margaritas sat in the middle of the table with a bevy of empty shot glasses scattered around. If he guessed correctly, there had been at least two rounds of tequila shots shared by the five friends. He guessed there would be some sore bottoms to match the hangover headaches those little girls would have tomorrow.
His gaze settled on one of the waitresses leaning against their booth. Mark devoured her form with his eyes. She was dressed in brief black shorts that hugged her pert bottom and a bar T-shirt. Cricket. Damn, I’ve missed her.
“Daddy?” Hope caught sight of them. She pushed against Ember’s shoulder, urging her out of the booth. In a shot, Hope ran to her husband Sam and jumped into his arms to kiss him.
One by one, the women processed through their tequila-clouded thoughts that their men had returned as well. Each reunion brought clapping and cheers from the bar, which attracted a large bevy of military personnel and town folk equally. Everyone knew the risks involved in military life and celebrated when skill, courage, and luck brought someone home.
As Sam held Hope close, Mark watched his gunner, Tex, lift Rosie off the floor to whirl her around in an exuberant circle before kissing her deeply. The curvy baker clung to her heavily muscled man as River dropped her tray of drinks at another table and abandoned her waitress duties to rush forward crying, “Doniphan!” She jumped into his arms and scattered kisses over his battered face. Jax’s laser vision focused on Ember who held her arms out to welcome him. Their sniper cupped his red-haired Little’s face to kiss her tenderly.
With everyone settled, Mark shed his leadership mantle to focus on the one woman who’d visited his dreams on the mission. Cricket walked slowly toward him. Her usual cheerful smile sobered, revealing her apprehension as she approached.
“Hi, Mark. Welcome home,” she greeted him, stopping a foot from him. “I’m glad you’re safe.”
The mission had been hairy. Touch and go at several points, and the skill set of each man had saved them. He’d pushed regrets from his mind each time the risk of their annihilation loomed over the team. The remorse for missing the chance to have Cricket in his life had haunted him. No more.
“Damn everything and everyone,” he muttered, stepping forward to wrap his arms around the young woman he knew belonged to him.
Her gasp of surprise reached his ears just before Mark pressed his lips to hers. Mark claimed her as he’d wanted to a million times, his rock-hard control crumbling at the sensation of holding her close. When he finally lifted his head, Cricket opened her eyes slowly to look at him. Her expression of wonder made him harden against her.
“I don’t understand,” she whispered.
“I’m an idiot.”
“I’m not going to argue with you,” she agreed. “I can’t do this, Mark. If you’re going to change your mind again, just let me go.”
“I’m sorry, Cricket. I’ve hurt you badly trying to protect you. If you’re interested in a battered old guy, I’m not going to push you away again.”
“I need a daddy,” she whispered.
“You do,” he agreed with a smile. Although Mark knew he did not deserve her, he vowed to treasure Cricket forever.
“No take backs,” she warned.
“I promise. What time do you get off, little girl?”
“Two hours. I can see if they’ll let me go home early,” she offered eagerly before looking at the hustling bar. It was obvious they needed more staff, not less.
“I’ve waited for you this long. I can wait two more hours. Go take care of your customers. I’ll be here,” he assured her, stepping away.
“I don’t want to,” she whispered.
“I know. Go anyway. I’ll be here,” he repeated.
A table shouted her name and Cricket bolted away with a reluctant look over her shoulder. Mark checked his watch. It would be a long time until midnight. He eased himself down onto the thin padding of the booth. Battered and bruised, his bed called his name, but Cricket wasn’t there—yet. He’d survive at the bar for a while.
“Captain, I’m taking Hope home,” Sam said, dropping a hand on his commanding officer’s shoulder.
“Maneuvers tomorrow at fourteen hundred hours,” Mark answered gruffly.
“I’ll be there.” The red-haired navigator for the team guided his wife through the crowd.
Tex nodded to acknowledge the time and followed quickly with Rosie who wiped happy tears from her eyes as they threaded through the gathering.
Jax waved Ember into the other side of the round booth before scooting in next to her to leave room for Doniphan. Ember cuddled close to her daddy and laid her head on Jax’s shoulder as if to savor his presence.
River hurried away to reclaim her empty tray and zipped back to clear away the evidence of their indulgences. Doniphan helped by placing empty shot glasses on the tray with a meaningful look.
“How many of these did you have, little girl?”
“Two,” she whispered. “We were all sad. It made us happy for a while.”
“I’m sorry we were gone so long,” he said, tugging her down for a kiss before spanking her bottom. “Go work so we can get out of here in a while.”
Smiling, she darted away with a full tray. “Thanks, Daddy.”
With a sneeze, Ember sat up suddenly. “How long has it been since you’ve had a shower?”
“Too long,” Jax groaned, obviously imagining the delight of being clean.
“Go home,” Mark ordered. “I don’t need any babysitters.”
“Not happening,” Ember refused with an emphatic shake of her head.
“Captain, we’re hanging with you and Doniphan until Cricket and River get off. No man left behind and all that,” Jax reminded him.
“Not necessary,” Mark reminded him.
“But we’re staying anyway.” Jax closed that line of discussion.
“Damn, I should have asked River to bring us some beers,” Doniphan remarked.
“Anyone thirsty?” Cricket chirped, drawing cheers from the men a few seconds later when the petite blonde approached on cue with three longneck bottles in her hands.
“I think I love you, Cricket,” Doniphan thanked her.
“Sweet talker,” she teased, carefully distributing the drinks.
The men clinked their bottles together before taking a large swig. Two moans of enjoyment clashed against Mark’s protest of “What is this?”
He rotated his bottle to read, ‘Root Beer.’ The other team members and Ember tried to cover their laughter as he met Cricket’s dancing gaze. “Explain this, baby girl.”
She leaned forward to whisper in his ear, “I don’t want you to forget I’m yours.”
“I’ll never forget that.”
“I’m making sure alcohol doesn’t erase your decision. At least until tomorrow morning,” she informed him in total seriousness.
“Little girl…” he warned. When she darted away, Mark resigned himself to sipping on the sweet soda.
“She’s got you,” Tex laughed.
“Bad,” Jax added with a grin.
“Be careful. Jealous men have to run extra laps,” Mark cautioned.
He relaxed against his seat as the men tried to rein in their amusement and failed miserably as Ember slapped a hand over her mouth to hide her giggles. Mark’s eyes followed Cricket around the bar. How had he kept her at arm’s distance for so long?
Thick hamburgers arrived next with piles of French fries. With a groan, the men leaned in to devour the food. When Cricket stopped by to check on them and bring another round of drinks, Mark made sure his Little ate some of the food just as Ember and River shared nibbles of their daddies’ meals.
Lounging back in his chair, Mark forced himself to relax and enjoy the companionship of the group. Each relationship had blossomed into something special. He glanced down at his watch to check the time for what seemed like the fortieth time and groaned inwardly. While he loved spending time with the other couples, he couldn’t wait to get his Little alone. The wait until her shift ended seemed endless.
Everyone stood as Cricket and River appeared at their table in jackets ready to head home. Jax’s and Doniphan’s large bodies cleared a path for Mark to steer the three women out of the bar. The other couples faded into the darkness as they emerged into the parking lot, leaving Mark and Cricket alone.
“So, what are we doing?” Cricket asked before biting her bottom lip.
“I’d like you to come home with me.”
“I’d like that,” she answered immediately, before adding hesitantly, “I probably smell like beer.”
“I smell worse than that. I can promise you a warm shower and snuggles in my arms. I need to have you close. Will you follow me home?”
“I walked here tonight. My car is acting up.”
“A buddy of mine will check it out tomorrow. My truck’s over here.” Mark steered her to the large, heavy-duty truck that he used to haul around the group’s training gear.
“You don’t have to do that,” she protested.
“Indulge me. I need to know you have reliable transportation.”
“O-okay.” Cricket stumbled over the word.
Mark opened the passenger door and lifted Cricket effortlessly into the seat. Her hands covered his at her waist as she leaned forward to look into his eyes.
“You’re not going to change your mind, are you, Mark? My heart won’t take it,” she admitted honestly.
“I’m not going to change my mind, little girl. I’m sorry I’ve fought this for so long. I wanted to protect you and all I’ve done is make us both miserable.”
“You’ve been miserable?”
Mark slid his hands from under hers to cup her jaw and kiss her sweetly. “Yes,” he confirmed.
He stretched the seatbelt around her and clicked it into place as he mentally kicked himself for leaving her in limbo. What kind of daddy made his Little question his feelings about her?
They had played a cat-and-mouse game with each other for too long. Mark had been sure that Cricket would find someone else her own age who would be a better fit. To his surprise, she hadn’t wavered from her interest in him. Finally, on this mission, he’d realized that Cricket’s youth wasn’t keeping her from knowing what she needed.
“Worse. Let’s go home, Cricket. I just want to be alone with you.”
When she nodded, Mark stood back to secure the door. Circling the car, he climbed inside and started the engine. Reaching his right hand across the console, he silently asked to hold Cricket’s. To Mark’s delight, she linked her fingers with his, holding onto him tightly.
“I’m glad you’re home,” she whispered as he headed out of the parking lot.
“Me, too, baby girl.”
They drove in comfortable quiet. Mark’s last vestiges of energy evaporated as he pulled into the garage. He dragged himself from the cab and around the truck to help her out.
“I’m going to crash hard, Cricket. I’m sorry. There were so many things I’d planned for our first night together.”
Cricket took one look at his haggard face before answering, “Shower and bed for you.” She steered him inside through the inner door. His furniture was minimal, with no decorating touches. Her heart ached for him. Mark lived for work only. Cricket made an instant vow to change that.
Aware that his bedroom was in the rear of the house after attending gatherings at Mark’s house and using the hall bathroom, Cricket helped him down the hall, passing a door in the hall that was always closed. She guessed he must have a master bathroom, even though Cricket had never dared to explore his room. Once inside, she guided him through the only other open door into the Spartan master bathroom. Without pausing, she steered him toward the sink and propped him against the vanity.
“Let’s get these clothes off you, Mark.”
He pulled his battered T-shirt over his head and threw it toward a hamper. “I can take it from here, baby girl.”
“Of course you can. I’m just helping,” she assured him. Sinking to the floor, she untied his combat boots before standing back up. “Step out of your shoes.”
As he braced himself against the marble top, Mark slowly followed her directions. Without hesitating, she unfastened his belt and slid the zipper down. Before he could protest, she pushed the filthy garments over his hips and pulled them off his feet, along with his socks.
Cricket tried not to focus on the thick shaft between his legs. This was not the time to focus on sex, no matter how long she’d been dreaming of seeing his chiseled body. She concentrated on the scrapes and gouges peppering his skin. He’d need some first aid for several, which were inflamed. That could wait until he had some sleep.
“This is not how I imagined being naked with you for the first time,” Mark groused.
“In the shower. You’ll make this up to me after some sleep.”
Pushing Mark into the shower, Cricket toed off her sneakers before walking in behind him. Ignoring the water streaming over her Harbor Bar and Grill T-shirt and brief shorts, she pumped shower gel into her hand and got busy. She soaped his back as he dipped his head under the spray. There was no shampoo anywhere. Shrugging, she applied more bath soap to his short hair and scrubbed his scalp.
“Damn, little girl. That feels amazing,” he groaned as he propped himself against the wall.
Quickly, Cricket washed his legs, butt, and torso. She hesitated at his erect shaft for a second before finishing the job. Mark might be exhausted, but his body had responded to her touch.
“Not exactly what I envisioned for the first time your hand wrapped around my cock,” he growled, pushing away from the tiled wall.
“You’re too tired. We’ll play later, Daddy.”
“I do not plan to fall asleep when I make love to you for the first time, Cricket.”
Turning off the water, she dried him quickly before wrapping a towel around his hips. Mark swayed as he stood in place. Cricket grabbed another to secure over her dripping clothes before wrapping an arm around his waist to ease him from the shower.
“Bed,” she ordered.
“Brushing teeth first. I’m going to kiss the hell out of you when I wake up.”
Amazed by his determination, Cricket squeezed toothpaste onto his toothbrush and watched him struggle to coordinate his movements. She wiped a bit of the minty cleaner from his mouth before guiding him to the door.
He staggered from the bathroom and collapsed on the mattress. Mark’s hand captured hers. “You okay, baby girl?”
“I’m good,” she reassured him.
Instantly, Mark’s eyes closed, and he crashed into sleep. She tugged her hand from his and pulled the wet towel from his body. Cricket flipped the other side of the comforter over Mark, covering his battered frame. Standing by his side, she listened to the sound of his even breathing, thankful he had come home.
She forced herself back into the bathroom to strip off her clothes. After wringing out as much water as possible, she draped each item over the shower rod. Cricket turned the water back on and stepped into the spray, groaning as the hot water cascaded over her hypersensitive skin. The sight of Mark naked and touching his body had ignited the desire that had simmered inside her for so long.
Cricket tried to push it out of her mind. Not now. Soon! Her own fingers spreading the silky soap over her body sent shivers across her skin. Unable to resist, Cricket ran her fingers around one taut nipple and bit her lip to quiet the moan that welled in her throat. She traced a line down her slightly rounded stomach to the patch of soft curls guarding her most private space. Need pushed her to glide her fingers into the slick juices welling from her body. Cricket flicked her fingertips over her clit and shivered.
So good! Picturing Mark’s nude form in her mind, Cricket fantasized that his hands were stroking her. The orgasm hit fast and fierce, shaking her body. It wasn’t enough—just barely taking the edge off. Determined her next orgasm would result from his touch, not hers, Cricket turned into the water to finish showering quickly.
Toweling off the moisture from her skin, she held the fabric to her body as she snuck in to open the drawers in his dresser. Cricket found his T-shirts on the second try. Tiptoeing back into the bathroom, she dropped the towel and pulled on the enveloping garment. She hesitated at the sink to look at herself in the mirror. Hopefully, Mark wouldn’t be turned off by her unadorned features. Cricket opened the drawers looking for an extra toothbrush and found them stacked with military neatness in the bottom drawer. It felt very intimate to look through his things. She pinched herself to make sure she was not dreaming this. The small red mark that followed the zing of pain reassured her that this was real. After brushing her teeth quickly, she hurried back to the bedroom and eased herself onto the bed.
“Cricket,” he breathed before throwing the cover over her and pulling her small frame to his side. Mark pressed a kiss to her neck before falling back to sleep once again.
Her thoughts whirled in her brain, keeping her awake. Finally, with a concerted effort, Cricket reined in all her worries. Mark was home. He knew who she was and wanted her next to him. Closing her eyes, Cricket relaxed into sleep. She’d deal with everything else tomorrow.