Ruthless

Book Cover: Ruthless
Part of the Viper Force series:

Only Eli, a wounded ex-Navy man, is ruthless enough to protect Mia from someone lurking in her past who's determined to destroy her. 

Doctor Mia Crawford moved to Crescent Cove, Maine to escape an abusive--and now jailed--ex-boyfriend and forget what happened one night on a dark beach in Mexico. She settles into the peaceful coastal community, psyched to be close to her brother, Flint, who runs Viper Force. An added incentive is Flint's new employee, Eli Bradley, a man who asked her out eight months ago when she couldn't ever imagine dating again. When someone stalks her, she turns to Eli.
Eli never forgot Flint's younger sister, Mia. Sure, she shot him down, but they now live in the same town and she says she's open to more. Things soon heat up between them, and she offers a future he never thought he'd have. When someone breaks into her house while she's sleeping and writes #1 on her bedroom mirror, he'll stop at nothing to eliminate this threat. A kidnapping attempt is followed by #2 painted on her front door, and he fears it's only a matter of time until Strike 3.

No way in hell will he let anything happen to Mia. But her past overshadows the present--and a shocking revelation puts her in the sights of a murderer. It'll take Eli's considerable military skills and the MacGyver tricks he's picked up at Viper Force to keep the woman he's falling for safe.

The Crescent Cove Romantic Suspense Series have no cliffhangers or cheating. They offer twisty, heart-stopping suspense, steamy, on-the-page heat, and a guaranteed happily ever after.

 

Excerpt:

RUTHLESS
A Viper Force Novel
© 2019 Marlie May


CHAPTER ONE

Mia 

Waves crashing on the Mexican beach masked all sounds—except for the footsteps coming up fast behind me.

My skin crawled with fear. Earlier, someone had shadowed me as I shopped for souvenirs in town. I’d tried to lose the creep and only after I’d raced down an alley and jumped into the back of a cab, shouting for the driver to go-go!, had I escaped.

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No one was ever going to hurt me again.

Inhaling sharply, I pivoted and swung out my beach bag, smacking the person’s shoulder. 

A man dropped to his knees on the sand, releasing a surprised curse. As quickly as he’d fallen, he burst to his feet, his feral gaze trained on me. His hand flew to his thigh. A weapon?

 “Crap!” I backed away quickly. The setting sun eclipsed his face, making it impossible to make out his features. Had the man from earlier found me? 

My heart thundered in my chest, and I instinctively took the stance my military-trained brother, Flint, had drilled into me. Fists raised. Feet squared. Ready to kick. My snarl collapsed when I got a better look at my opponent.

Double crap.

“Eli?” I gasped out. Horror and embarrassment surged through me like a red tide. Eight months ago, after Flint’s engagement to Julia abruptly ended, I’d flown out to Port Hueneme, California to help him pack up his things. He’d needed a change and was discharging from the Navy. His friend, Eli, had been stationed there. He’d asked me out but I turned him down, telling him long-distance relationships never worked, especially with a man who was career military, getting ready to deploy overseas. 

It was the only excuse I could come up with. I couldn’t tell him the real reason.

“I’m sorry I hit you,” I said. “I thought, well…”

Eli brushed sand off his jeans, wincing when his hand encountered his right thigh. He huffed, but from the sparkle in his chocolate brown eyes, I could tell he also found the situation funny. He swiped his hand through his thick, dark blond hair and laughed. “Flint said you’d be down here, staring at the waves. Gotta say it, Mia, you sure know how to greet a guy.”

Figures. The first time I meet up with the man I’d thought about almost continuously for months, I nailed him with a sack of books. I’d never live this down.

“I’m really sorry,” I said. “What are you doing in Mexico?” 

Flint and his employees, Jax and Cooper, were in Puerto Morelos on assignment for my brother’s business, and I’d opted to join them for my last night before flying home to Maine tomorrow. 

Eli was an anomaly. 

“It’s your birthday, and I wanted to surprise you,” he said.

“Consider me surprised.” I grinned, and my unease drifted away like dandelion fluff on the wind. 

“Thought about sending flowers.”

My eyes widened. “Here? In Mexico?”

“Well, back home.” Color rose in his face. Damn, it made him even cuter. “You might not know it yet, but I’m done with the military. Moved home to Crescent Cove six months ago. Just took a job with Flint.”

He lived in Crescent Cove? My heart rate doubled. “What made you decide to get out?” 

His hand twitched on his thigh. “It was kind of a mutual decision.” He nudged his head, indicating we should walk, and we started down the beach with waves rushing up the shore beside us. A storm at sea last night meant the surf was still high.

His gait…Did I detect a subtle limp? Mutual decision, he’d said. A medical discharge? Since I could tell the topic made him uncomfortable, I let it go. “You said you work for Flint now. What are you going to do at Viper Force?” My curiosity about what went on inside that huge warehouse my brother bought had been gnawing through my bones, but Flint had dodged my questions so far. Maybe I could tease a few details out of Eli. “Viper Force is an awfully lethal name for a company that builds and sells kiddie drones.” Flint’s lame explanation.

“Kiddie drones. Yeah,” Eli said slowly. “That’s what I’ll be working on.” Stopping, he bent over to pick up a pale pink shell and presented it to me.

I smiled and pocketed it, and we continued strolling. The setting sun warmed my back and other than a few birds trying to outrace the waves on spindly feet, we were alone. “Flint said you guys will also do simple security jobs on the side, such as the one here in Mexico.” 

Like I believed my brother was involved in anything simple? The drone thing made sense. Flint had been an Explosive Ordinance Disposal Technician in the Navy. When he was twelve, he’d built a rocket and launched it into our neighbor’s backyard. Mrs. Johnson’s shriek made my mom jump. Mom’s shriek sent Flint running. “Last I knew, Seabees didn’t spend their time learning combat skills with the Marines only to provide guard duty for the local convenience store. I’m thinking that part of Viper Force sounds more like James Bond.”

His gaze flicked toward the houses lining the boardwalk on our left before returning to the ocean. “That’s all there is to it, I’m afraid. Convenience stores.” I could almost hear the groan in his words. “But, hey, Flint said you’d just finished a month-long medical mission here?”

Decent subject change. My curiosity about Viper Force might not be satisfied today. 

“I’m a doctor. When Flint moved to Crescent Cove to be near the base for his Reserve duties, I visited and fell in love with the area. And because of what…” Wincing, I pinched my lips together. When I left Massachusetts, I chose to focus on the future, not the past. “Anyway, I followed Flint and took a job at Crescent Cover General Hospital, though I won’t start until after Labor Day. I’d already set up this volunteer opportunity in Mérida, and I’m presenting my findings at a conference in western Maine next week.”

“What sort of findings?”

“Cardiac risk in older women. I worked with the Juniper Foundation’s mission here, providing free education and testing to women who might not otherwise receive the cardiac care they need.” My volunteer work meant even more to me after what happened with a woman I was unable to save back in Crescent Cove.

“That’s really admirable.” 

“Flint set it up, actually. He’s friendly with the head of the Foundation, as you may know. He mentioned the connection, and I signed on to volunteer.”

“I do remember meeting Peter, the head of the Foundation. And, well, Flint’s fiancée, who was somehow also associated with the Foundation.”

Julia had been a nanny for one of the Foundation board members. She’d bailed on my brother and left no forwarding address. 

“When Flint asked me to fly down here to provide extra cov—uh, support on this job, I mean, I was hoping we’d run into each other.” The crooked smile Eli sent me made butterflies flit around in my belly. “Didn’t expect to find myself dusting the beach with my knees, though.”

“I’m sneaky like that,” I teased. As we slowed and studied each other, I tried to ignore the warmth radiating off his skin, let alone his scent, a heady mix of fresh air and spice. This man was hot enough to make my head spin. 

He tugged on the bag still dangling from my hand. “What do you keep in that thing, anyway? Cannonballs?”

I held it up, smirking. “A girl can never have too many books when she’s hanging out at the beach.”

“Can’t be just books,” he said, chuckling. “No way would a couple of paperbacks deliver that solid a punch. I’d say you’ve got…A twelve-pack of beer in there, too.”

“Really.” I tucked my hand on my hip and lifted one brow. The humor in his gaze tickled through me. “You think I’m lugging a bunch of beers around at the beach?”

He shrugged. “I would.”

I rolled my eyes. “Figures.” Just like a guy. “No beer.”

“What are you reading, now? Last I remember, you spent some time out at Port Hueneme curled up on Flint’s sofa with a romance.”

“Or at the pool. We can’t forget that little pool incident.” When he’d come up behind me as I sat on a folding chair with my feet the water, absorbed in a particularly steamy part of my book. He’d been going wide to catch a football thrown by Flint, only to stumble against my chair and send us both flying into the water. I’d been wearing a sundress, not a bathing suit. He’d rescued me—Flint’s words, not mine—but I’d been drenched through. 

Eli’s soft gaze drifted down my front, and his voice deepened. “Not sure I’ll ever forget the pool.”

Was he remembering how our clothing clung to our bodies as we stood in the shallow end, close enough I could hear him breathe? A white sundress became transparent when wet and I’d gone braless. He’d only been wearing low-hung shorts and his bare chest, broad and rippling with muscles, had gleamed in the sunlight. I’d been unable to drag my gaze away.

“I still love romances,” I said in a squeaky voice, overcome by the memory of how I’d felt back then. “But mystery is on today’s menu.”

“You sure it’s not romances?” he asked. “With sexy covers?”

“Not you, too,” I grumbled. Too often, Flint teased me about my choice of reading material.

“No way. I’d be the last to pick on you for that. Besides, I read romance novels, myself.”

I halted and stared up at him, my jaw dropping. “You read romance novels?”

“Love the Highlander ones the best. You read any by that author who lives in Crescent Cove? Dag Ross. Highlander’s Fury is the first in the series.”

Who was this man, and why did I not know this about him?

“All those swords and battles.” Eli wiggled his eyebrows. “And hot sex.”

“Wait a minute.” I scowled. “You’re joking with me, right?” My voice grew hushed. “You don’t really read romance novels.” As I gaped up at him, I pushed my windblown hair off my face. Damn curls kept getting in my eyes. “Do you?”

He snagged a particularly unruly strand and tucked it behind my ear. “You should check out my bedside table.” Whistling, he started down the beach again.

Bedside table? That took my brain in a steamier direction. I stared after him before rushing to keep up, shaking my head about his comment. “Hold on.” Grabbing his arm, I pulled him to a stop. It was impossible to ignore the nice play of muscles underneath my palm. Was the rest of him still as ripped as I remembered from eight months ago?

A crazy thought occurred to me, and I frowned at the ocean. Aw, shit. Did I dare? After all, I did sort of owe him. 

“Hey, Eli,” I said slyly.

He turned and walked backward. Yes, he did have a limp. So subtle, it would take someone who knew about injuries to notice. “Yeah?”

“About that pool incident.”

His brow narrowed as if he hoped to read my intentions in my face, but I was a better poker player than that. The word came out again, slowly, “Yeah?”

Giggling, I rushed him, my hands outstretched. But I tripped and tumbled forward, into his arms that wrapped around me. 

Momentum sucked.

Eli lost his balance. As we fell, he pivoted and I landed on top of him, my dress hiked up, my legs straddling his waist. 

Now, wasn’t this a delicate position?

A wave flew up the shore and crashed over us before receding. Sputtering, I pushed my sodden hair off my face and wiped the salty sting from my eyes. “I’m sorry,” I said. “You okay?” 

“More than okay.” He rose up onto his elbows, grinning at me. “Damn, girl, you do know how to greet a guy.” His heated gaze traveled down my front.

Of course. There was nothing like a wet white sundress.

***

After changing, I met up with Eli, Flint, Cooper, and Jax outside the restaurant where we’d arranged to celebrate. 

“Mia,” Cooper said with a nod. “Happy Birthday.”

“Thanks. Congratulations to you and Ginny on getting engaged,” I said.

His smile grew wider. “Thanks.”

“What’s this I hear about you and Eli going in for a swim, Red?” Flint asked me with a big grin. He ruffled my hair.

Big brothers could be a major pain in the butt. “My hair is strawberry blonde, not red,” I insisted for what had to be the thousandth time since I’d learned how to speak. “And you know I hate that nickname.”

“Dude.” Jax came up behind Eli, sporting a smirk wider than the sea. He nudged Eli’s shoulder. “When you say you’re gonna surprise a woman, you sure don’t hold back.” Chuckling, he came around to lay his arm on my shoulders and smoosh me into his side. “Happy B-Day, kiddo.” He kissed my cheek. “Heard about the tote bag incident, but I must’ve missed the swim. Where did you learn that move, huh? Not from my boy, Flint, here, because he’s too much of a softie to encourage a sweet-as-honey girl like you to dance in the ocean with a man like Eli.”

Sweet-as-honey. The nickname Jax gave me after I brought a batch of cookies into Flint’s office. Despite the endearment and kiss, Jax and I were only friends. Actually, I had a feeling he was sweet on my cousin, Haylee, who also worked for Flint. Not that he’d acted on it as far as I could tell. Whenever she was around, he went all broody and barely said a peep.

“Glad the book incident wasn’t directed my way,” Flint said, rubbing his shoulder. “I’d be the last one to creep up on you on your birthday.” 

“Yeah, sure.” If Christmas hadn’t stopped him from tossing water balloons off the loft while I sat on the sofa underneath, why would my twenty-ninth birthday be any different? From the slick look Flint sent Eli’s way, I had a feeling I’d been pranked after all, even if Eli was unaware of the role he’d played in my brother’s latest trick.

“Let’s go inside, shall we?” I said, waving at the door. “How about a cease-fire from teasing on my birthday?”

Flint held the door open for me to enter first. “Don’t see no white flag.”

“As if. I’d never surrender.”

We were soon relaxing on the restaurant’s deck overlooking the ocean. Eli and I sat on one side of the wooden table, opposite Jax and Flint. Cooper took a seat on the end. We chowed through numerous plates of burritos and nachos, washing the crispy-cheesy goodness down with tall glasses of cerveza. 

“What happened to your leg?” I asked Eli quietly.

His hand flew to his right thigh and he rubbed. “Just a little encounter with an IED.”

“Femur?”

He nodded. “Put me out of commission for a while.”

A painful injury, then. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. Not much I can do about it now.”

I could tell the topic made him uncomfortable, the last thing I wanted to do. A quick subject change was in order, stat. “So, tell me about those romance novels you love. Are the Highlander ones really your favorites?”

“Shit, bro. Romances?” Flint reeled backward with pretend horror plastered across his face. “Don’t tell me you’re into that stuff, too?”

Color landed squarely in Eli’s chiseled cheeks. Blushing only made him look hotter because it hinted at his vulnerable side. He straightened and yanked on the neck of his t-shirt. “I’ve read a few.”

“That’s a complete betrayal of mankind.” Jax’s words came out serious but the sparkle in his deep blue eyes indicated he was only poking fun.

Flint sipped his beer and then cocked one eyebrow Jax’s way. “Maybe if you read a few romances, you’d learn how to talk to women. Then you wouldn’t find yourself blanking at inopportune times.”

“Burn,” Eli said with a grin. His glance between the men made it clear he was enjoying the show.

“Women like to go out with me. Talk to me,” Jax said with a huff. “I…” His gaze met mine, and my mind shot again to my cousin, Haylee. “Yeah, sometimes.”

Haylee’s eyes followed Jax whenever he was around. Didn’t he see that? Maybe I should share my favorite cookie recipes with her.

Eli turned to me. “As I was saying earlier, I really like Dag Ross’s books. There’s something awesome about a spunky woman who can put a beefy Highlander in his place in two seconds flat.”

Repeat performance: my jaw dropped. I leaned toward him, eager to share my favorite books, but Flint abruptly pulled his phone and answered an incoming call. 

He listened for a moment, then said, “Okay. Hold tight. We’ll be there right away.” As he put his phone away, he directed an intent gaze to me. “I’m sorry but something’s come up on the job. We have to take care of this now.” 

“Showtime.” Cooper tossed his napkin on his empty plate and stood. 

So much for Flint’s “cushy” security assignment here in Puerto Morelos. Fluffy security jobs never called four ex-Navy guys out on a Friday night. 

I tried not to pout, because I hadn’t seen my brother in over a month and I was enjoying getting to know Eli again. “I thought you were off until tomorrow.”

“In my business,” Flint said. “I’m never off-duty.”

Kiddie drones, right?

“Trouble?” Eli asked quietly, his forearms braced on the table.

Flint’s gaze slid away from mine. “Someone’s…gone missing.” Standing, he dropped a bunch of cash onto the table. “We’ve gotta go.”

Rising, Jax’s hand darted around to his back as if he needed to make sure he was still packing.

Stop. He wasn’t armed, was he?

My gut clenched. What was going on here?

Eli joined them on the other side of the table, saying so softly, I barely heard his words, “I’m in if you need me.”

“Thanks.”

Cooper nudged his chin toward Eli. “Talk about new employee orientation, huh? Nothing like jumping into action your first week on the job.” 

“Action?” I glanced back and forth between the men but their expressions might as well be carved from granite because they gave nothing away. These military guys sure held their secrets close.

“Well, no, not really action.” Cooper coughed. “It’s—”

“You’ll go to the hotel immediately, right?” Flint said to me. 

Getting up, I grabbed my clutch off the table. “Crack of dawn flight, so I guess so?” Since the celebration was over, I might as well spend the rest of my evening with a good book. After all, I had a twelve-pack of them waiting in my room.

Flint came around the table and hugged me. “I promise I’ll be back in time to take you to the airport in the morning.”

“Wait.” Stepping back, I frowned. “You think you’ll be gone all night?”

“’Course not,” he said. “This is nothing.” He rubbed my arms and stared down at me. “I’m sorry this job’s ruining your birthday, though.”

“It’s okay.” I pressed for a smile because it wasn’t like he could help it. “It was still great to see you. We can catch up once you’re home.”

“Definitely.”

Cooper nodded. “See you back in Maine.”

Jax came around the table and bowled me over with a hug, saying by my ear, “Stop by the office soon, will ya? I’ve missed you.”

I chuckled. “Chocolate chip?” Definitely needed to enlist Haylee for cookie duty.

He grinned. “Double batch, if it’s not a problem.”

“Deal.”

We walked out front, and Jax, Cooper, and Flint strode toward my brother’s rental parked in the lot and climbed inside. 

Eli remained with me. 

“Well,” he said, his attention focused on the pavement. “It was nice meeting up with you again despite the unexpected dip in the sea.” He reached into his pocket and held out a small white box. “Happy Birthday.”

“Oh, wow.” A thrill ran through me. He’d bought me a gift? “You didn’t have to get me anything.”

“Eli?” Flint called, standing inside the open driver’s door. Brows lifted, he nudged his chin toward the black SUV. “Any time, bro.”

Eli ignored him. “It’s just a little something I thought you’d like.”

My smile got bigger, because…nothing. This couldn’t mean anything, could it?

“Eli,” Flint said again, firmer this time.

Eli watched me, his lips teasing upward.

“As I said, I’m back in Maine for good, now.” His intent gaze remained on my face. “I imagine we’ll run into each other sometime?” 

Excitement rushed through me at the thought of seeing him on a regular basis. Maybe…Was it possible things could be different this time? After all, I’d moved hundreds of miles away from Russell and the two men were nothing alike. “Sure, I’d like that.” 

He nodded and strode toward the SUV.

My pulse racing too fast from such a simple conversation, I watched him—couldn’t help watching him, actually—until he’d climbed into the vehicle and Flint squealed out of the parking lot.

Dropping onto a bench nearby, I opened the box. 

My breath caught when I saw what he’d given me. The delicate silver chain winked beneath the streetlights when I dangled it. Tossing aside the box, I smiled at the pendant—a small sterling silver daisy.

Did he remember that time I’d picked a daisy and spontaneously given it to him when I’d stayed on the base to help Flint? He’d turned redder than the horizon the night before a storm.

With a soft smile, I fastened it around my neck, then rose and crossed the road to my hotel. But once I’d reached my room and sat on the bed with my book open on my lap, I sighed. It seemed a shame to spend my last night in Puerto Morelos cooped up in a stuffy hotel room. The ocean would be gorgeous now that the moon had risen, and the sultry-salty air would give me one final taste of Mexico.

As I left the hotel, I looked around to make sure no one followed. The creepy guy in town must’ve been an isolated incident. Someone looking for an easy tourist mark.

Arriving at the entrance to the public beach a short time later, I kicked off my sandals. I fingered my necklace as I strolled beside the water, my mind skipping with thoughts of meeting up again with Eli once we were both back in Maine.

My smile fled and my pulse kicked into overdrive when I tripped over a man lying motionless on the sand.

The metallic tang of blood hit my sinuses.

COLLAPSE

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