The Wounded Warrior #1
Heart of a Marine
Single dad and wounded warrior, Dwayne Dempsey, has no idea what he’s bargained for when he signs a construction contract with curvy Marla Danaher. The last thing he needs is her breathing down his neck every step of the project.
Marla is a serious businesswoman. She leaves flirting and dating to her twin sister Charline. All she’s interested in is building a solid financial future. But she can’t ignore his raw physical strength and masculinity. They’re on each other’s nerves day and night. She loves his outspoken 6 yr old daughter, Amber.
Things take a nasty turn when Dwayne’s ex-wife reappears. She demands full custody of Amber, who she abandoned days after her birth. Dwayne will never allow it. How does he protect those he loves without driving them away?
Release Date: June 7, 2021
Genre: Contemporary | Military Romance
A PINK SATIN ROMANCE
Big-boned, big girl, full-figured—how Marla hated those stupid metaphors. At five-foot-six, she weighed one hundred sixty pounds. Size twelve, just like Marilyn Monroe, but unfortunately due to the nubile teenage models marketed by Victoria’s Secret, Marilyn’s charms were no longer fashionable.
Her fraternal twin sister Charlene, on the other hand, was the same height, with one hundred twenty pounds of lingerie-model curves. Charlene wore her thick, golden blond hair like a privileged princess. Rusty brown eye color was the only thing they had in common. Victoria’s Secret, eat your heart out.
Marla got the brains. She dearly loved Charlene, but she sometimes wondered what was going on upstairs, except for her insatiable appetite for men. To give Charlene credit, she was very successful in her quest.
Now what was Char doing walking toward her at the construction site today? She shaded her eyes from the bright sun and gazed across the cluttered lot.
“Oh, lordy lord, Marla,” her sister said. “How can you stand it? Is he here every day? That man makes my mouth water and my knees quake.”
“Give me a clue, Char. Is it the leer or the tool belt?”
“Are you kidding me? You must be blind. He’s nothing but rippling muscles and he’s got the sexiest little hitch in his walk. Yum. He’s the spittin’ image of Gerard Butler. This guy is hot. Have you noticed how he looks at you? I’m jealous. You should talk to him.”
Marla rolled her eyes and blew out a long sigh. “I do talk to him, much more than I care to. Dwayne Dempsey is a royal pain. It’s a new argument from him every day. Just because he’s the contractor he thinks he knows more about this project than I do.”
Charlene had that moony-eyed grin on her face. “Well, he is the contractor.”
“Oh, for the love of goats, Charlene!” What was the use? “I own this building. He’s supposed to follow my design, my blueprints, not argue about every little detail.” She wasn’t sure Charlene recognized the difference between employer and employee.
Marla wouldn’t admit it, but she did have eyes, and she considered Dwayne Dempsey quite good-looking. Mouth-watering actually. She also knew how much he enjoyed flirting with the fat girl.
Dwayne looked up from his cell phone, hitched up his jeans, and winked at Charlene. He turned and waved when a man in the construction trailer yelled, “Yo, Gunny, over here!”
“Oh, lordy. I want him.”
“Take him, please. You’re welcome to him.”
Charlene scrunched her eyebrows. “Who’s Gunny?”
“Dwayne. He’s a retired marine. His men call him that. Now, what are you doing here?”
Charlene dragged her gaze from Dwayne’s back and shoulders as he walked away. Hand on her heart, she sighed. “Look at his perfect butt in those beat-up jeans. I don’t know how you stand it.”
Marla took the roll of blueprints and tapped her twin on the head. “You didn’t answer my question.”
Marla rolled her eyes. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh. I thought we’d go for lunch. We have to strategize for the singles dinner thingy. Remember? You promised you’d go with me. It’s tomorrow night.”
Darn it! She’d forgotten all about her promise to Charlene and her brothers. Charlene had wheedled her about it to the point where she was ready to agree to anything just to get her to stop. It must have been the fact she was exhausted and so worried about the financials for this apartment house condo conversion. She’d better find a buyer for that great new listing she got before she had to start pinching pennies on this project.
Marla blew an annoyed sigh and thumbed across the screen of her iPhone. She had every minute of the day accounted for. “Why didn’t you call me last night and give me a heads-up? I’m swamped today.”
“I just found out an hour ago that Harry and Barry could meet us for lunch. You know how hard it is to get them to sit for an hour. It was today or never.”
Grrr, this meant she had to talk to Dwayne, to let him know she’d be away from the site for a couple of hours. She straightened her shoulders. Might as well get it over with.
Marla waved the roll of blueprints. “Dwayne! Hold up. I want to talk to you.”
Delectable Dwayne stopped and turned. He waggled his eyebrows and grinned. “I thought you’d never ask, gorgeous.”
Her face and neck blazed. He was the only man on earth who could make her blush. She hated him for doing it and herself for allowing it.
“In case you hadn’t noticed, Dempsey, I’m your employer. Don’t you think it’s a tiny bit improper for you to call me gorgeous?” She gave him her sternest scowl and slammed her hands onto her hips.
The devil grinned. “I believe in honesty, boss. Goes with being a Marine.”
Resisting the urge to scream, she told him in a matter-of-fact tone, “I’ll be offsite for about two hours.” She pointed to a truck that pulled onto the premises. “You’ll have to sign for that load of drywall. Check it closely. Make sure they don’t try to pawn off some of that cheap Chinese stuff on us, like last week. If you need me, you have my cell number.”
“I need you all right.” His grin was enough to stop her heart. “But I’d rather have your unlisted home number.”
The last thing she wanted complicating her life was an unrepentant bad boy. Marla had her life planned. She knew where she was going, and she was going alone.
She silently swore by all that was holy that the big lout changed his posture, tilted his pelvis forward slightly, then grinned like a cat about to pounce on a mouse.
“One of these days, Dempsey.”
“It’s what I live for, Red.”
He referred to her mass of strawberry blond hair, which at the moment was growing larger in the damp breeze. How she hated her hair, especially when he teased her. She whirled around and flounced away before she said something she’d regret.
“Mmm, mmm, mmm,” he hummed. “Hey, Red. Wait! I’ll need a copy of the invoice.”
She stopped, dug through her briefcase with a vengeance, found the invoice and thrust it toward him, noticing again the two missing fingers on his left hand. Maybe he wasn’t as good with power tools as he seemed to think.
“Here, take it, Dempsey.” She held the paper at arm’s length to avoid getting any closer.
Why, she asked herself, did she put up with him? Two reasons—he was the best in the business, and his father and her father had been best buddies for over fifty years. The two old friends were known by their pals as The Double D’s—Dempsey and Danaher.
She wouldn’t fire Dwayne as long as he was doing his job, but she could plan his murder. Maybe she’d ask Char to shag him to death. No, maybe she’d do it herself. Have a little fun while getting rid of him. He’d learn not to mess with her.
Cheeks on fire over her thoughts, she rejoined Charlene. “Let’s go before I commit a felony.”
Char’s beautiful face scrunched with confusion. “Is he related to that old cutie pie, Johnny Dempsey? He looks like him, don’t you think?”
“Yes, he’s John’s middle son. The one we seldom saw when we were kids because he left to live in Wyoming with his mother.”
Light dawned like the sunrise in Charlene’s eyes. “Oh, yes, now I remember. Barry or Harry said Dwayne hated the wicked stepmother.”
Harry and Barry, their twin brothers. Identical twins, not fraternal like Charlene and Marla. Twins ran in the Danaher family. Two Danaher’s for the price of one. Or, as they privately joked behind Dadley’s back—he only got two cracks at it. Maybe that’s all Bradley wanted with their ditzy mother, Silvia. What a family. If it wasn’t for Marla, they’d fall apart. When her mother had complications after the birth of the boys, Marla spent a lot of time taking care of them. Gradually, with Silvia’s free and easy compliance, she took over more and more of their care. Taking charge came natural to her.
Fortunately for Marla’s busy schedule, the restaurant was only a short ten minutes away from the jobsite.
Barry and Harry sat waiting for them in the deli. College boys, they looked the part, like they’d come straight from Central Casting. At seven years younger than Marla and Charlene, few people, including their immediate family, could tell the two twenty-year-olds apart. The boys often finished each other’s sentences, and their gestures were like mirror images. It was beyond fascinating to watch them. She had a hunch their professors had long ago given up accusing them of cheating when their test results were nearly as identical as they were.
Electrical engineering geniuses, her boys would someday be filthy rich, live in ocean front mansions in Malibu, drive matching silver Jaguars, have gorgeous trophy wives, and two perfect sets of identical twin children. But for now they were still her baby brothers, and they understood they darn well better not cross her.
Charlene smiled as they made their way through the deli crowd. “There they are. Let’s go sit with the best-looking men in the room.” She sashayed the rest of the way to their table. “Hey there, sailors,” she vamped, “want a date?”
The boys laughed, stood up like proper gentlemen, and held chairs out for them. They’d already ordered iced tea all around.
Marla’s baby brothers always evoked a feeling of gooey warmth and love in her chest. She took credit for everything they did right, and blamed Charlene when they’d misbehaved or cursed. Insisting Charlene quit teaching them profanity, Lord and lordy lord became a permanent part of her sister’s vocabulary.
Barry, or Harry, leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. “How’s it going, BS?”
BS was short for Big Sis, a term of endearment the boys used for both her and Charlene. Being word misers, they spoke with as few words as possible. Why, she didn’t know. Charlene used enough for all of them, so it balanced out.
She noticed the little fleck of gold in Barry’s left iris. “I’m fine Honey Barry. Have you two visited Miss Emmaline lately?” She raised an eyebrow. “She’s very fond of you boys.”
“Good. She asked when you’d be home from Cal Tech for spring break.” She looked across the table. “Harry, did you go to the nursery to pick up that potted hydrangea for her balcony?”
“In the car.”
Charlene asked, “Why is she living in the middle of a big construction project? It must be a pain for the crew to work around her.”
Marla’s thoughts exactly. “It was a condition of the construction contract when Dempsey accepted the job. He didn’t want to displace her while they worked on the building. He insisted they could complete the project with her there with very little extra time.”
“Oh.” Charlene nodded. “Did you boys order lunch for us?”
“Cheeseburger for you and—”
“—chef salad for Marla.”
That’s what she meant about finishing sentences.
“Just what I wanted.” Marla was sick of chef salads, but the boys were so smug about being able to read her mind, she didn’t want to burst their bubble.
“We know,” they said.
She barely had time to take a sip of the tea when the waitress brought their plates. Harry, Barry, and Charlene had humongous cheeseburgers and mountains of heavenly smelling fries. Marla swore the waitress twisted her lips when she handed over the salad as if to say, “Diet isn’t working, chubby.” Wait until the skinny little snot saw the tip she’d get for that look.
Charlene produced a to-do list from her large shoulder bag, purse, overnight-emergency—whatever that she always lugged. Prepared for any eventuality, her Charlene was. God bless her fun-loving little heart. She listened as Char droned on about the singles meet-up. Marla ate about half her salad and pushed the plate away. Half an hour later, she checked her watch and yawned.
Charlene rolled her eyes. “Okay, Marla, I get it. You’re on a tight schedule.” Char eyed the boys. “Remember, do your dazzle-the-girls-thing and don’t mess up my perfect plans. You’re there in case Marla or I get stuck with a creep.”
The boys bobbed their heads. “Gotcha.”
Char took a dainty sip of tea to wash down a big mouthful of fries. “Oh, I almost forgot. Did you boys know Dwayne Dempsey was working on the condo project with Marla?”
“Nope,” they said.
“You probably don’t remember him, but he’s Johnny Dempsey’s middle son. He’s, oh, lordy lord, the most gorgeous bundle of testosterone on two feet, if you ask me.”
“We didn’t.” They snickered.
Marla interrupted. “First of all, Charlene, he’s working for me, not with me. I own the building. It’s my project, my design, and my money.”
Char rolled her big, expressive eyes. “So sorry. A minor detail.”
“Hardly. I pay his wages.”
Char flashed a dismissive finger wave. “Whatever. You have to admit he’s the best-looking man in town.” She smiled at the boys. “Other than you two, of course, and guess what?” She winked. “He wants to get in Marla’s pants.”
That was enough. Marla smacked her hands on the table. “What a pile of horse feathers! You believe all men think about twenty-four-seven is sex?”
The three of them turned to her with identical smirks and bobbing heads. “Um hum.”
* * *
Dwayne served Amber a plate of macaroni and cheese with Vienna sausages then sat across from her at the kitchen table. “Now, that wasn’t such a lot of homework was it? I told you we’d get through it in no time.”
She grinned, her cheeks puffed with food like a hungry squirrel. “Daddy?”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full, sweetheart. I’m not going anywhere. Take your time.”
She nodded and swallowed. “Daddy?”
“How come I don’t have a mommy? All my friends have mommies.” Her big golden eyes could always melt his heart.
“You had a mommy. She couldn’t stay with us. You already know this, hon.”
Amber propped her cheeks in her hands. “I don’t remember her, but I smile at her picture in my room every night before I go to sleep.”
He touched her nose and smiled. “Your mom loved you very much.” The lie sat bitter on his tongue. Francine wouldn’t have left if she cared a damn about either one of them.
“I know, Daddy, but couldn’t you get me another one?” She took on a practical tone. “If you got us another mama you wouldn’t have to do everything around here, you’d have a grownup lady to hug and kiss, and I’d have somebody to show me how to make a French braid.”
Dwayne chuckled. “Yeah, I kind of botched that up, didn’t I?” He marveled at the workings of her six-year-old mind. Where had that grownup hugging and kissing idea come from?
She wrinkled her nose when he put green beans on her plate.
“Just a few. They’re so good for you. If you had a mom, she’d make sure you always ate your veggies.”
“Daddy, they’re yucky.” She pulled a face. “They’re green.”
“That’s why they’re called green beans.”
They chewed in silence for a few minutes. Amber grudgingly ate her beans, acting all the while like they were poison. She took a big swallow of milk. “Daddy?”
“Are you too old to get me a new mommy? Grampa Johnny says you’re a bratcherler. What’s that?”
He laughed. “First of all, I’m not too old, and I’m not a bachelor. Uncle Cluny is a bachelor. A bachelor is a man who never married. Grandpa’s wrong, but don’t tell him I said so. We wouldn’t want to hurt his feelings, would we?”
She grinned. “No, we’ll make it a secret from him.”
“Good girl.” He stood. “Now, Marine, hop to and march your plate to the sink, and then go fill the bathtub. I’ll do the dishes and put the movie on when you’re ready.”
Dwayne wasn’t sure how many more times he’d be able to sit through Cinderella. He’d coax Amber to consider a new movie next week, but tonight he was too tired to argue about it.
Yes, he wanted to marry again, to get her “a new mommy.” He didn’t know the first thing about mothering a little girl. He was raised in a family of boys. A broken one at that. Amber could use a feminine influence, and he needed a “grownup lady” in his life. Boy, did he ever.
He envied his buddy, Cluny. Cluny flitted from woman to woman like a bee pollinating a rose garden. When he left one rose for the other, they parted the best of friends. How did he do it?
Dwayne would love to break his long, very long dry spell, but he had no interest in adopting Cluny’s lifestyle. He wanted permanence, a partner in every way. A steady woman he could make love with, laugh with, argue with. A smart, challenging, and uncomplicated woman who chose to be there every day for him and Amber.
Cluny had set him up on a couple of blind dates that weren’t worth the price of a babysitter. It was a problem. At thirty-one, with a kid, his prospects were skinny. Desperate single moms scared him more than an Iraqi soldier aiming an RPG at his head, and the thought of Amber ending up with the kind of stepmother he and his brothers got kept him awake nights.
He loved women and he loved to flirt, but the only woman who piqued his interest was Marla Danaher. She had it all in his book. Smart, sassy, opinionated, never married, a magnificent head of strawberry hair, a great rack, and lush hips he itched to get his hands on. The problem—she thought he was a jerk. Ah, well, he could dream.
Every time he pictured gorgeous Marla he got a throbbing ache. He glanced down at his work boots. What would she think if she knew only one boot held a foot? Was Marla the kind of woman who would see beyond his reminder of Iraq and realize he didn’t need two legs to be the man for her? One of these days he’d convince her he was sincere, but for now all he seemed to do was annoy the woman. It was probably best if he’d back off and tone it down.
Amber was his number one priority.
Later, after her bath, Amber stood next to him and buttoned her feet-in bunny pajamas. She tugged his pant leg. “Daddy?”
“I don’t want to watch Cinderella again. I want you to read me a story.”
What a relief! Dwayne tossed the dishtowel on the counter and swept her over his shoulder. He smacked her little bottom then planted loud kisses on her cheeks and chewed at her neck, laughing when she squirmed and giggled.
“Daddy, put me down!”
“Do I have to? You’re so warm and cuddly, and you smell so good. I want to eat you up, my pretty.” He proceeded to growl at the other side of her neck.
Kicking and squealing, she barely choked out, “Daddy, stop!”
He reluctantly set her on her feet. “Okay. What story do you want me to read?”
* * *
Marla ate peanut butter and chocolate ice cream out of the pint container she’d picked up at Baskin and Robbins on her way home from work. Why put it in a bowl? She lived alone, seldom had guests except for family, and didn’t allow Skipper to have ice cream even though he begged without letup with his bulgy brown eyes. He’d mastered the have pity expression.
She patted the adorably fat Chihuahua. “Chocolate is poison for doggies, Skip. I’ll give you a peanut butter treat later. Don’t pout. I shouldn’t be eating this either, but at least it won’t kill me.” Although death by chocolate would be a great way to go.
The phone rang. “Hi, Char. What, no date tonight?”
“How’d you know it was me?”
“Caller I.D. Ever heard of it?”
“Don’t be such a snarky pants. I’m working on Dadley’s birthday party next month. Do you think we should go all Mexican on the appetizers or mix it up?”
Every year Charlene went to great lengths to plan a surprise party for their father. He hated surprise parties, so Marla always told him the date in advance. That way he could look surprised and happy and actually enjoy the party.
“He loves anything Mexican. How can you go wrong unless you were considering a piñata? That would be over-the-top.”
“Forget that. Mom would kill me if a single scrap of cellophane ended up on her precious lawn.”
“We should have the party at the country club.”
“Costs too much.”
“I offered to pay, don’t forget.”
“I can’t show my face around there for a while. The golf pro’s wife nearly shot us when she caught him feeling me up in the cart shed.”
Marla dropped her head on the back of the couch. “Have you ever given serious thought to dating single guys? What’s with you and married men?”
“Hey! I date single men. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Why don’t you go on a real date? That’s why I talked you into the singles thing tomorrow night.”
“If by ‘real date’ you mean jumping in the sack with a man I barely know…”
“It’d make you smile for a change. Date somebody other than Edwin Plimpton. I don’t understand what you see in him. You probably need a magnifying glass to find his willie. How about that Dwayne guy? I bet he’d love to show you what a real man can do. I’d jump at the chance.”
Marla shook her head and sighed. The sad fact was Edwin had shown no interest in sex since they’d started going out three months ago. Their relationship, such as it was, was purely platonic.
“Forget I said anything. Go all Mexican, the more guacamole, the better. Have it catered. I’m not doing any of the cooking this year. I’ll take Sil shoe shopping at Cesare’s China Doll. That’ll keep her out of your hair while you and the boys get everything setup. I’m sure she can squeeze a couple more pair into her closet.”
Charlene’s snort came through loud and clear. “Yeah, for sure, Mom’s down to fifty or sixty pair by now, poor dear.”
“What are you complaining about? She and you wear the same size. You haven’t had to buy a pair of shoes for the past five years.”
“Oh. Yes. There is that.”
“Anything else? Skipper is giving me dirty looks. I promised him a treat.” She rubbed the dog’s round belly while he rolled on the couch in ecstasy.
“You and that fat pooch. Give Edwin the heave ho. Get a man!”
“Bye, Char. Call me again when you want to share your wisdom.” She clicked off and smiled at Skipper. “I don’t need another man as long as I have you, my sweetie-weetie. C’mon let’s find that peanut butter treat. Then I have to call Dadley to give him a heads-up about his traditional, annual surprise party.”
Yes, she loved her dog, and she was pretty sure she could love Edwin, but as she reached in the cupboard for the box of dog cookies, she wondered what it would feel like to have Dwayne Dempsey wrap his big arms around her. To have his...don’t go there, Marla. Still, what would it be like to know that when he called her beautiful or gorgeous, he really meant it?