Worth the Fall
The McKinney Brothers, Book One
They meet on a beach. . . . Abby Davis isn’t wearing a skimpy bikini or sipping umbrella drinks, not when she’s busy chasing around four little ones. And Matt McKinney isn’t looking for fun—he’s a Navy SEAL, a grown man with a long list of missions . . . and fallen brothers.
They only have a week. . . . Abby has brought her children to this beach to start over, to give them the enjoyable memories they deserve. Matt’s been sidelined by a combat injury, and haunted by the best friend he lost and the promise he made: to remain a SEAL—focused and dedicated. This leaves no time for what he’s always wanted: a family.
But a week is all it takes. . . . Matt opens her heart while Abby soothes his soul. And though they plan to say good-bye when the week is over, something magical happens on that beach, something neither can forget. Something utterly, completely worth falling for.
“You ever notice that hot, mostly naked chicks don’t really show up in a snow covered train whenever you pop open one of these?” Rob held out his dripping beer bottle, pointing to the picture on the silver foil.
Matt McKinney pushed back in his beach chair, closed his eyes, and dug his heels deeper into the coarse, east coast sand. He focused on the familiar low roar of the surf, a backdrop of white noise, and tried to block out his cousin.
“I mean, isn’t that some sort of product misrepresentation?”
“Write a complaint to the company,” Matt offered.
“Hell, man.” Rob slapped the arm of his chair. “That’s a good idea. Might get some free beer or something.”
Or something. Normally, Matt would have laughed at his cousin’s thought process. Normally, he would have laughed at a lot of things. Lately? Not so much.
“Uh, excuse me.” A grating female voice came from a towel at his feet. “Talking about naked girls is just like, rude. Did you forget we’re laying like right here?”
Forget? If only that were possible.
Four days ago, he’d found his cousin sitting on the curb outside his home. “Come on, man,” Rob had begged. “I need to get to the beach. She could be ‘the one’.”
Sidelined from duty by a bullshit injury, Matt had nothing else to do. But as it turned out, Rob had needed more than a ride. He’d needed a wingman.
Whatever. How bad could it be?
Two days later, he knew exactly how bad it could be. He glanced at the divas stretched out in the sand, man-made breasts too big for even his hands, spilling out of their tiny tops.
Brittney gazed up at Rob from her towel, an undeniable lust in her eyes. “If you want hot women on a train, why don’t you drive your little choo choo on over here?”
“Honey, my choo choo is not little,” Rob corrected.
“Mmm. That’s true,” she said, giving Rob a knowing glance.
“Too bad for you, Matthew. This is a one-way train,” Kimmi said, still pissed he’d dumped her drunken body into her bed last night. Alone.
“Or one-man,” Brittney added with a laugh.
Matt wished himself somewhere else. Anywhere else.
Kimmi flipped her oiled body over to bake the other side, the bright orange sequins of her top nearly blinding him. He’d outgrown her type years ago. Though, given his job, he didn’t have a lot of options.
They continued with train innuendos, going through tunnels and what they could do for Rob if he got off track, until Matt couldn’t take it anymore. “I’m going for a walk.” He stood, stepping around coolers and towels.
“Man, you are spending way more time walking than sitting,” Rob said. “You’re supposed to relax.”
If you call this relaxing. “Back in a while.”
“Bye, Matthew,” Kimmi said, doing a flittery finger wave as he walked away. “Thanks so much for asking if I wanted to go.”
Good Lord, he was tempted to get in his truck and drive home right now.
A pack of teenagers raced across his path and into the water, brightly colored rafts under their arms. A mass of families crowded the beach, getting in one last trip before school started. Sea gulls screamed above his head, begging for food and reminding him of his brothers and sister fighting over the last cookie.
He’d gone less than ten yards before he was drawn to the water like the Navy SEAL he was. Matt cut through the rolling waves of the Atlantic as if he could prove to his commanding officer he was more than ready for active duty. Pushing himself with strong, even strokes, he swam faster, kicked harder. But the cool water brushing past him did nothing to quiet his mind.
This last week of mandatory recovery had him edgy, antsy. The barely legal women his cousin had invited were driving him to the brink. At thirty-four, what had once been sexy, seemed sleazy. Bold and assertive felt more like desperate and aggressive.
He liked sex. He didn’t like being mauled.
Matt continued moving parallel to shore, catching glimpses of colorful umbrellas and the six towering condos that made up the resort. When he finally felt his muscles relaxing, he turned to shore, thinking a hard run under the mid-day sun would likely burn off more steam than swimming.
The sandy white beach reflected back at him as he made his way in and a small football splashed off to his right. Matt glanced around for the thrower. No one anywhere near him in the ocean, but a little boy stood at the water’s edge watching.
He retrieved it, waded onto the beach, and held it out to the boy. “Here you go.”
The kid, who looked to be around five or so, stared silently up at him for a long second before taking his ball.
Deed done, Matt turned to go. He’d taken two steps when something wet smacked into his back. Looking down, he sighed at the small blue and yellow football at his feet.
He glanced back over his shoulder to find the kid standing there, looking like a dog after dropping a ball at your feet for the tenth time. You probably don’t want to play with me, but I sure wish you would.
Matt weighed his choices, debating whether to applaud the boy’s tactics or scream in frustration. What he wouldn’t give to be a kid again with kid worries. To want nothing more in life than someone to play with you.
He picked up the ball with every intention of walking away and tossed it back in a gentle underhand. It hit the boy right in the hands and took a bounce back toward Matt.
He hated himself for thinking it, but he’d grown up with five brothers. You didn’t drop a ball without hearing a jab.
The kid ran over to retrieve his football and stopped short, looked back and waved at a woman a short distance away. “That’s my mom.”
Matt couldn’t see her face, but she raised a hand at her son, clearly keeping an eye on the situation even as she sat in the sand with three other children.
The boy took a step closer to Matt and stared at his toes digging into the sand. “I can’t catch,” he mumbled.
Based on that one throw, the kid was right. “You’ll get it, you just need to practice. Maybe your dad could throw with you or something.”
“Nope. He can’t throw. He’s dead.”
The kid dropped that bit of info like he was talking about the color of the sky. Matt’s gut twisted. Another person dead. He ran his fingers through his hair, pulling at the ends. And he’d been jealous of this kid, he thought, rubbing at the headache hovering over his right eye. The one that had been gathering strength all morning. He had nowhere else to be and he sure as hell wasn’t in any hurry to get back to playing cabana boy.
“I’ll throw with you,” Matt said. He took five steps back and motioned with his fingers for the ball.
The kid gave him a million-watt smile and wound up for his throw. The ball wobbled and sailed straight into the ocean. Nailing him in the back had obviously been a fluke. The kid wasn’t any better at throwing than he was at catching, but what he lacked in skill, he made up for in enthusiasm.
After his tenth trip fishing the ball out of the surf, Matt turned, and came face to face with the kid’s mother.
And what a face it was.
Smooth, flawless complexion. Delicate features. She was small, compared to the five-foot-ten Kimmi, the top of her head barely reaching his shoulders. Dark hair hung in a simple ponytail, a few strands blowing softly around her striking face.
“Hey, Jack.” She laid a gentle on the boy’s head. “Why don’t you go play with Annie?”
“But, Mom, we’re practicing.”
“Jack,” yelled a little girl with long, brown braids. “Charlie’s tearing down your castle!”
She watched her son run off to rescue his creation.
Matt hadn’t noticed it at first, but when she turned, the black tank top she wore with black bikini bottoms stretched over her belly. Beautiful and pregnant.
He forced his attention to the kids. Jack and a smaller boy knelt, throwing sand out behind them like dogs digging a hole. “Nice kid.”
“Thanks.” She flashed him a sweet smile and looked away.
Such a sharp contrast to his current companions, but every bit as beautiful. Even more so.
One of the kids, a little girl who looked around three, came up. Her short legs struggled in the sand and her arms strained, dragging a yellow bucket.
“Mommy, wook in my bucket. You gotta see.”
“Wow, Gracie,” she said, peering into the bucket. “You have a lot of sand.”
“Not just sand, Mommy. I got a creature. He’s in dere ‘cause I putted him in dere. You want to see?” she asked Matt.
“Sure.” Matt crouched down beside her. “What did you say was in there?”
She leaned right under Matt’s nose. “It’s a creature.”
A riot of soft brown curls tickled his cheek, giving him a whiff of baby shampoo and little kid sunscreen. Reminding him of nieces he didn’t see enough.
A sweet woman smell also surrounded him and he breathed in a little deeper. Kneeling as he was, there was no way to avoid the sexy thighs mere inches from his face.
“Oh no! He’s gone! Hey, wittle guy, where are you?” she called, her nose practically touching the sand. “Mommy, I wost him.”
“Oh, I’m sure he’s in there,” Matt said, jerking his attention back to the bucket. “He’s probably hiding with all of us crowded around. I think I saw him.”
“Well, I want to see him too. I’m gonna dig him out.” She popped up, the crown of her head catching Matt right in the mouth.
“Ow!” Gracie said, rubbing her head, then smiled up at him sweetly. “I’m okay.” And she skittered off to find her creature.
Matt straightened and she raised her hand toward his face, stopping midway and lowering it before making contact. But not before Matt caught the gleam of a gold band on her left ring finger. But the kid had just said his dad was dead? “It’s fine.”
A white blond, cherub faced toddler stopped at her side, his arms raised. Matt tried hard not to stare at her breasts as she bent to pick him up. Yeah. His lip was fine.
She propped him on her hip, and he twisted a strand of her hair around his sandy finger. And that sand sprinkled over her smooth sun-kissed chest and… damn.
The little boy tucked his head under her chin, his soft baby hair ruffling over his forehead in the breeze. Time seemed to stop along with his brain. They stood awkwardly for a beat before a squabble broke out around the crumbling sand structure.
She shifted her feet and adjusted to weight of the boy. “Guess I better go.”
Matt glanced at the castle builders. He wouldn’t mind helping.
“Bye,” she said.
Okay. Maybe not.
She took a step, then smiled at him over her shoulder. “Thanks for playing with Jack.”
“No problem. Nice to meet you.” He watched her walk away. Toned legs, tiny ankles, and an ass he was not looking at.
He stood there a minute, waiting on…he had no idea what, before heading back in the direction he’d come. That little girl was a doll, with her blowing curls and preschool chatter. And the mom, well…he needed to keep walking. And then it hit him.
He hadn’t met her at all. Hadn’t even asked her name. What an idiot. His brothers would laugh their asses off. He picked up the pace until he was jogging.
It shouldn’t matter if he knew her name or not. It didn’t. Just because he didn’t see a man around didn’t mean there wasn’t one. Except…if she was here alone and pregnant with four kids, then…Then what?
Crazy…Patsy Cline sang in Abby’s head. I’m crazy for…bringing four children to the beach? Definitely. Could people tell by looking at her? Hopefully not. She prided herself on keeping it together.
This week at the beach would prove a definite challenge, but she was used to that. And she’d prepared for this vacation for months, researching resorts with kid friendly beaches, pools, and activities. Even when her friend had been forced to bail on her, she’d been determined not to disappoint them.
“Mommy, my mouf is crunchy,” three year old Gracie said, pushing her blowing hair out of her face and tapping her teeth together.
Abby looked down at the small PB&J triangle in her three year old’s sandy hand. “Uh, oh. Rinse your hand in the bucket and I’ll get you a new one.”
She fished out another sandwich and sprinkled a few chips onto Gracie’s plate. Before she ate even one, the wind picked them up and sent them tumbling across the sand where they were immediately attacked by seagulls. Charlie then attacked the birds like the wild two year old he was, kicking sand all over as he went.
“I think we should eat at the pool,” Annie said.
Abby agreed with her sensible six year old. A picnic on the beach might be a great idea in theory, though the authors of Varied Dining Experiences For Children had obviously never tried peanut butter and jelly in the sand.
She sighed. Why fight it. No need to make things harder than they needed to be, and the pool side grill was one of the reasons she’d chosen this resort. One week of chicken fingers and fries wouldn’t kill them.
Shade? An ice cold drink? Swimming without Mother Nature trying to drown you? Abby stared out at the churning foam of death. It had taken all of two seconds to realize her children would not be getting in that water no matter how many flotation devices were tied to their bodies. More than twenty years later, she could still taste the salt water in her mouth, still feel the panic of being pulled under and tossed like a rag in a washing machine.
“Come on, guys. Let’s go.” Abby gathered their things and trudged through the sand as fast as possible with a sweaty two-year-old lump plastered to her side. They’d eat lunch, spend a few hours at the pool, then plenty of time to rest before dinner.
“Hot, hot, hot,” her daughters chanted, running past on their tip toes. Jack made it to the boardwalk first, dropped his football and snatched up the hose. The ball bounced down the steps and an unbidden image of a man came to mind.
Nice, and nice looking. Tall, broad, dark hair on his head and his chest. Not that she was looking, but she wasn’t blind. And the way he’d played with her son? Not once in Jack’s five years had his own father played with him like that.
And now he never would.
Abby climbed the wooden steps between waving sea oats as the smells drifted and merged. Sunscreen, salty air, and rotting seaweed. She’d just set Charlie on his feet and pushed her bags well away from the water when a screeching voice pierced her ears.
A tall red head in a sparkling orange bikini stood behind her, eyes wide open just like her mouth.
“Oh. My. God.” The redhead gaped at her glittering top like she’d been peed on.
Her platinum blond friend glanced up. “What?”
Big Red dabbed at her beaded suit. “That kid just sprayed me. Stupid,” she muttered.
Good grief, Jack had not sprayed her. The wind might have blown a slight misting in her direction. The way the woman reacted, you’d think she’d melt. Doubtful.
Jack turned with the hose, nearly spraying blondie for real. “Mom, she said stupid.”
“Hi,” Gracie said, smiling up at the red head. “I wike your baving suit. I have a Barbie wif an orange baving suit.”
Abby adjusted the hose in Jack’s hand, pointing it at his feet before the wicked witch of the East had a meltdown.
“Can’t you get wet?” Gracie gazed up at the tall woman studiously ignoring her.
Gracie continued, her eyes round with wonder. “Are you a mermaid?”
“She’s not a mermaid,” Annie whispered.
“She could be,” Gracie said. “You don’t know.”
Abby picked up her youngest and rinsed his little feet then handed the hose to Annie.
“I told you we should have gone up a different way,” Silky Blond said. “This is ridiculous.”
Right. Children rinsing off sandy feet on the beach boardwalk. Insane. Abby took a calming breath and let it out. The best reaction is no reaction. At least that’s what her social worker had always said.
“My turn,” Gracie said, hopping from foot to foot like a jumping bean. “I need to winse. I’m not a mermaid.”
Nestled between the high-rise condominiums, Matt scanned the balcony of the resort’s main restaurant, absently taking in the other guests. An elderly couple. A family of four. A large, boisterous party raising glasses of red wine. His table next to the white stone railing gave him a clear view of the pool below and the happy sounds of families enjoying an evening swim reached him in bursts. All this behind a backdrop of rustling palms, their trunks wrapped in twinkling lights becoming more visible in the fading light of dusk.
“I need another drink,” Kimmi said. “Matt, get me a–”
“Excuse me.” Rob shot out a hand to a passing waiter and took care of it.
Matt continued sweeping the area out of habit until his eyes landed on a table a few yards away and stopped. The woman he hadn’t met on the beach and all four kids sat directly in his line of sight three tables away. They were all dressed for dinner, dry clothes instead of bathing suits, sandals instead of flip-flops.
“Did you see that one, Matt?”
Kimmi was talking movies. “No,” he answered absently.
They got their food and he ate his steak and lobster, as the conversation continued around him, but throughout dinner he kept one eye on Jack’s mother. She’d made the sign of the cross and led the kids in the Catholic dinner prayer, one he’d said at every meal eaten in his house since birth. She smiled a lot, laughed a lot, as she worked the table with calm efficiency. It was hard to look anywhere else.
“Well, I’d rather go to The Bouncer,” Kimmi was saying. “The guy on the radio said that’s where the beautiful people go. What do you think, Matt?”
“I don’t care.” Because he had no intention of going anywhere with Kimmi. She’d almost caused a brawl at the bar last night. Not surprising. That’s what happened when you rubbed yourself up against too many poles of testosterone. Rob would have to entertain them tonight. His cousin had dug this hole and he didn’t seem to mind being ass deep.
Matt tuned them out as the band played, guitar and violin creating an inviting beat. A silky male voice carried the tune, luring guests to the makeshift dance area.
Jack’s mother had taken the kids down to the patio. Matt sipped his beer and watched. Built like a dancer with small bones and long lines, she moved to the music with the same grace. Not a girl trying to attract attention, but a woman who couldn’t help being sexy.
And she fascinated him.
A sleeveless top revealed slender shoulders and sun kissed skin. Her short white skirt flowed, showing off sexy legs and strappy heels. But it was the way she swayed and spun, cradling the smallest boy to her chest, her cheek laying on his blond head, that held him fixated.
Jack galloped over, waving his arms wildly, and she threw her head back, the sound of her laughter stolen by the wind. He still didn’t know her name. And she was still alone.
The little boy wiggled out of her arms and she took the girls by the hand. They twirled on the ends of her fingers, admiring the way their silky sundresses flared. He imagined dancing with her, as he’d seen his brothers do with their wives. How her small body would feel in his arms, the children laughing and dancing around them.
“What are you staring at?” Kimmi demanded. She sent him a narrow eyed glare and stretched her skinny neck to peer over the balustrade. She shook her head and rolled her eyes when she didn’t see anything of interest.
And she wouldn’t. A mother dancing with her children wouldn’t be of interest to someone like her.
But it was to him.
When the torturous dinner finally ended, the foursome made their way down the wide stone steps, depositing them on the brick patio.
The band played an upbeat country tune and Rob spun Brittney into his arms. Matt wouldn’t cave to Kimmi’s orders to join her on the dance floor. She finally gave up and went off in pursuit of a willing male, leaving him free to sit at the weathered outdoor bar alone.
He nursed his drink and searched the crowd until his eyes locked on their target. She sat at the top of three wide steps, dividing the upper patio from the pool. His chest clenched along with other parts, watching the woman lick the last of her ice cream cone. The bourbon burned his throat as he tossed back the remainder.
Jack finished his ice cream sandwich and moved on to the wrapper, while both girls worked on orange push-ups, his personal favorite. The little one steadied himself with a hand on her shoulder, looking like he’d fallen face first into a puddle of chocolate.
It was a lucky man who had a woman like that, kids like that. His brothers did, but he’d made different choices. Different promises.
She rose from the steps and nodded to Jack, handing her wrapper to the youngest boy. The two of them raced toward the trash bin completely unaware of their collision course with a fast moving country line dance.
In a flash one corner of the dance floor turned into something resembling a freeway pileup. A short plump woman took a two-step and plowed into Jack, who knocked into the toddler, who reached out his chocolate covered fingers to break his fall. And he did. Then slid to the ground, wiping his ice cream smeared face as he went… all the way down Kimmi’s white pants.
Matt was already moving as diva number two twisted to examine the damage. He picked up the little boy, sprawled and whimpering on the brick patio.