SEAL’s One-Night Stand by Leslie North

PROLOGUE

Joy blinked as the bartender slid an old-fashioned style glass over to her, with about two fingers of some kind of clear alcohol, then immediately turned his attention to the next customer. “Oh, I’m sorry—” She waved at the bartender and tried to raise her voice to be heard over the relentless noise of the crowd. “This isn’t what I ordered.”

The bartender either didn’t hear her, or he just didn’t care, as he moved down the bar without so much as glancing her way.

Joy looked down at the glass with a sigh. This night was definitely not going the way she’d hoped. It was supposed to be a celebration—her and Margot, grabbing a drink to mark the occasion of their little app getting a few more investors, enough that they were finally able to actually hire some employees. It was something they’d been working towards for a while. If you were going to get technical about it—which Joy had a tendency to do—it was her app, one she’d spent countless hours and too many sleepless nights researching and coding like a fiend in order to make it a reality. But after Joy, Margot had been involved longer than anyone, and they’d never have gotten this far without her.

Still, Joy probably should’ve just offered to buy lunch tomorrow, instead of offering to buy Margot a drink and letting her pick the place. Which was how she ended up in Hooch, a hipster-ish speak-easy type bar that was so crowded she could barely hear herself think. And now she was here by herself to boot, since Margot had disappeared with the first hot guy to smile at her. It had to be some kind of humorous twist of fate that someone like her—who needed no help whatsoever with her love life—ended up working for a dating app. Margot fell in and out of love every week, at least, and never seemed to have her heart broken in the process, or even badly bruised.

Margot coasted through romance like she coasted through life, while Joy always seemed to find herself stuck somewhere she didn’t want to be—with a drink that wasn’t what she ordered. Joy picked up the glass and sniffed it, wincing a little as her eyes watered from the strength of it. She was not a straight alcohol kind of girl.

“I think this is yours.”

Joy glanced over—and then up, her head spinning a little as she leaned back to take him all in. The man standing next to her was quite an eyeful. He was very tall, with the kind of ridiculously defined muscles that made her think of a Greek statue. He was certainly handsome enough to qualify as a work of art, with that sun-streaked blond hair and deep, piercing blue eyes. Those beautifully sculpted features that made him look like a mix between a Viking prince and a runway model. He was enough to fry any women’s circuits with nothing more than a smile.

It took Joy a second to register that he was looking at her. She just assumed he was here to hit on someone in her general direction. “Wait, are you talking to me?”

“Yeah.” He held up a glass. “I think someone might’ve gotten our orders mixed up. Any chance this one is yours?” Joy realized now he was holding a vibrant pink drink, sparkling and fizzy. It looked entirely out of place in his long-fingered, well-tanned grip.

“Yes. I mean, I did order something like that—but how did you know it was mine? Were you making a gender-based judgment that I’d order something pink because I’m a woman? But then, why pick me? There are plenty of other women here,” Joy sputtered awkwardly. She was rambling, she knew, but she couldn’t quite manage to stop, even as she wracked her brain to think of something sexier to say to this previously undiscovered Hemsworth brother.

But miraculously, he didn’t seem taken aback the way people usually did when she started talking. He gave her a smile that was equal parts good-humor and melt-your-pants-off. Actually, more like seventy percent melt-your-pants-off. Minimum. “Of all the women here, you’re the only one who got served around the same time as me who also seemed unhappy with what you got, which happens to look like what I ordered rather than this—what is this monstrosity, exactly?”

“It’s a Floradora,” Joy informed him. “It’s gin, raspberry liquor, and ginger ale. There’s no reason to call it a monstrosity just because it’s pink. Since a drink is designed to be consumed, it seems silly to judge it by appearances. After all, I didn’t order it so I could look at it. I ordered it because I thought I’d like the way it would taste—” Joy took her drink from him “—and I was right, because this is delicious.” She gestured to what was doubtlessly the drink he’d order. “And this is…I’m guessing paint thinner?”

“Tequila.”

Joy pushed the glass over, congratulating herself on having made it through this encounter with Miami Thor with at least a shred of her dignity intact. “Well, thanks. Enjoy.”

“Thanks.” She was a little surprised when he didn’t move away. Even more so when he nodded to the seat next to her. “May I?”

“Are you sure?” Joy stuttered, feeling stupid for being so thrown. She was a grown woman, head of her own successful company, she could sit next to a sunbaked demigod for a few minutes. “I mean, yes. Please. Go right ahead.”

He slid onto the stool next to her, resting one arm on the top of the bar at just the right angle to bring him closer to her. “I’m Brennan.” Holy shit, he was leaning.

“Joy.” Before she could stop herself, she rushed on. “Are you seriously hitting on me right now?” Well, so much for her dignity.

Brennan grinned. It was a great smile, warm and honest and slightly crooked. It reached his eyes, too, and made little crinkles fan out around the corners. Joy felt the rush of heat through every inch of her skin, and then the longing. It had been a long damn time since a man had smiled at her like that. “Maybe. Is that a problem?” He leaned away a bit, enough to make it clear that he’d back off if she said it was. Which just made her want to tug him closer again. He even smelled handsome.

“No, it’s just not what I expected from this evening,” Joy told him with her typical unrelenting honesty. “I mean, I didn’t even dress up. Usually when I’m planning on…” She waved her hand between the two of them, “…this, I go home first, get changed and all that. I put on my nice underwear,” she explained—then wondered if that was TMI. “We just came here straight from the office for a quick, um, drink.”

Brennan’s smile didn’t change, but she sensed him drawing back a little further. Some part of her instantly wanted to pull him back. “We?”

Joy glanced around the bar, easily finding Margot in spite of the crowd. Even in the dim lighting, her electric blue hair stood out like a beacon. “Margot. She’s over there.”

Brennan followed her gaze. “And Margot’s your…friend?”

“Friend/co-worker. We’re supposed to be celebrating.”

“Really? Then you should let me buy your next drink.”

“I…yeah, thanks,” Joy said, surprised again. Impulsively, she leaned towards him. “But really? You’re hitting on me? Because, I have to be honest, you could do a lot better than me. I’m, what, a seven? On a good day. And you’re clearly a fifteen.”

“A seven?” Brennan replied, sipping his tequila. “Do you not own any mirrors, Joy?” Before she could protest again, he continued smoothly, “So what are you celebrating?” as he signaled the bartender. Of course, the guy hurried over the instant Brennan caught his attention. Not that she could blame him. Whatever your orientation, nobody could possibly ignore this man waving at them.

“A really great day at the office,” she answered. “We got two more investors, and our business was featured on this morning’s hot new tech segment of Wake Up, Miami. I’m developing a dating app.”

She saw the brief look of surprise before he gave her another charming smile. “Really?”

“Yes, really,” Joy said, sitting up a little straighter. Being underestimated was something she was used to. “I know, I might not exactly give off the impression of being a dating guru, but I do occasionally know what I’m talking about. Plus, relationship compatibility is a lot easier when you boil it down to lines of code.”

“I didn’t mean—” Brennan stopped, his smile turning self-depreciating, and somehow that smile was twice as devastating as the charming one. “You just don’t seem like you do this.” He mimicked her earlier gesture, somehow managing to make it infinitely more attractive. “A lot.”

“Oh, I do. I’m just terrible at it. Or I possibly have the worst luck.” Not that she really believed in luck, but it didn’t seem statistically possible that she’d be so bad at relationships by sheer random chance. “I like to think that my truly abysmal track record with relationships helped give me a solid foundation of experience with which to guide people towards better prospects. That, and I have degrees in both computer science and psychology, so I’m pretty good at calculating what makes people click…or not, as the case may be.” This was the part she was bad at—getting to know someone when they had their game faces on, when they were being flirty and superficial and the least true versions of themselves. If she could get them to be honest, to discard the pretenses—which was something the structure of her app aimed to do—she could find the pieces that matched them to someone else. If everyone was honest like that all the time, dating apps like hers wouldn’t be necessary. Of course, if everyone was honest like that all the time, they’d all be like her…in which case no one would want to date them anyway. “Or, more accurately, I’ve gone on enough terrible dates to know all the pitfalls.”

“Okay.” Brennan glanced around the bar, the light of challenge in his eyes. Joy attempted to ignore her heart’s backflip over that look of interest. “What about them?” He nodded towards a couple at the end of the bar, leaning close to whisper in each other’s ears. Observing them was a very welcome distraction, and the glowing, secret smiles on their faces told Joy all she needed to know.

“Oh, that is peak relationship honeymooning right there. You see how they keep leaning closer? I mean, it’s loud in here, but it’s not so loud that they wouldn’t be able to hear each other from further away. Which tells me that they’re taking any excuse to get closer—they’re in the sweet spot. You know, when the awkwardness of the first couple dates is wearing off, but you’re still riding the thrill of having found someone who really likes you. That’s a good time.” Joy lifted her glass a little, toasting them briefly.

She glanced around, on a roll now, then nodded at another couple a few stools down from them at the bar. “But that situation is not going well at all. They’ve been sitting there for at least twenty minutes, and I don’t think that guy’s stopped monologuing at any point. Maybe I should include tips,” Joy said suddenly, straightening up as the idea sparked. “When you sign up for the app. You know, how to act on a first date. How to treat a person like an actual person.” Brennan lifted his eyebrows, encouraging her to continue. “That’s why most first dates fail, in my experience—professional and personal. People treat the person across from them as…as some sort of validation dispenser. We’ve all got our damage, and we get so caught up hoping we’ve found someone who will fulfill our wants and needs, answer all our questions, that we forget we’re dealing with another screwed-up person who’s got wants and needs and questions of their own.”

Brennan considered her for a moment. “You’re pretty good at this.”

“At the analytics, sure.”

“At all of it. You’ve certainly gotten me interested.” His voice was low and warm. She felt it more than heard it. Stupid, sexy Brennan, she thought, but she could laugh about it now, even as she felt the heat rush to her face.

“Thanks, but usually guys start running from me long before this point. Or if they stay, it’s because their issues are worse than mine. Probably why I end up in relationship after relationship with guys who steal my identity to open up credit cards, or who end up in a jealous battle of wills with my cat, or try to convince me to sell my eggs, like my last boyfriend.”

Brennan snorted. “Why would he do that? Couldn’t he just go to the supermarket…” He trailed off, and for all his winning smiles, if Joy could have taken a picture to remember this night, she probably would have chosen this expression, as the realization struck. “And that’s not the kind of eggs you’re talking about, is it?”

Joy shook her head cheerfully. “Nope. Apparently, you can get thousands of dollars for a viable egg. Of which he was going to keep eighty percent.” The best thing she could say about that was that she’d probably done the women of the world a service, keeping Dietrich off the market for a few months.

“And he really thought you would go for that?” Brennan asked, and of course, baffled looked just as good on him as everything else.

“Apparently. He was going through a rough period financially, and believed if I really cared about him, I should help him out.” She leaned on the bar, enjoying this. “Okay, your turn. Worst relationship.”

Brennan shrugged. “I haven’t had any.”

“Nope, not accepting that,” Joy said, shaking her head. “Even ridiculously hot guys have bad relationships.” Surely plenty of women had done desperate, crazy things to try to keep this man’s attention. He ought to have multiple warnings pasted on him, like a prescription bottle. May cause dizziness, shortness of breath, and rampant sexual fantasies.

“Not if you don’t have any,” Brennan said, but it came out just a little too practiced and polished. “I like to have fun with someone who’s looking for just that, and let it be what it is without twisting myself in knots to make it something more.” He glanced at her. “What?”

“Nothing. It just sounds like you might have one or two egg harvesters in your past, too,” Joy said, cracking a grin.

“Not that bad,” Brennan insisted. “But one or two who wanted more, and I didn’t. They didn’t exactly take it well.” He glanced at her warily. “There’s nothing wrong with things not working out.”

Joy nodded. “Not at all.” Turns out he came with a warning label, after all—but at least he was up front about it. “As long as you’re happy—”

“I am,” Brennan said. There seemed to be effort to his smile now. “I’m happy.” He shook his head. “This has to be the weirdest first date conversation I’ve ever had.”

Joy blinked at him, somehow managing to not fall out of her chair. “This is a date?”

“Let’s just say this is the possibility for a date. It’s a Schrodinger’s date.” He arched an eyebrow. “Is that okay?”

“Well, you did just tell me that you don’t do relationships, so I kind of thought this was less a date and more you just trying to get me into bed, and then we’d probably never speak to each other again,” Joy said earnestly. “I still haven’t decided if that’s going to work out.”

Brennan’s face went through a fascinating cycle of emotions at that. Surprise, of course, at how blunt she’d been, but then a smile of sheer and utter delight that made her heart want to stage a two-act Broadway musical. And then, just as Joy started to recover, his lips curved into a grin that was pure heat and want. “Well, I hope you’ll tell me if you do,” he returned, and holy hot damn. He wanted her. He wanted her.

“You’ll be the first to know.” Joy managed to get the words out, chewing on her bottom lip as she tried to sort out the implications. The possible consequences. But then his gaze dropped to her mouth, and the look of hunger on his face overrode all her logic. “But I am celebrating.”

* * *

Joy pulled the tie out of her hair and raked her hands through it quickly as she stepped into the bar. This was silly, she told herself. She was being completely ridiculous, loitering at a bar in the hopes that the cute guy she’d slept with last week would be there.

That night with Brennan had been amazing. More than amazing. It had been the best sex of her life. But it was more than just the incredible, mind-blowing, bone-melting sex. He’d been kind, and Joy had experienced enough unkindness to appreciate that when she found it. He’d been funny, too, and it had done her in. How could any woman hold up in the face of all that dreaminess and not start, well…dreaming?

He was also honest, she told herself, not for the first time. They’d both agreed it was a one-night thing. They hadn’t even exchanged numbers. And yet here she was, heading into the same silly gin bar, hoping they’d run into each other again. Hoping against hope that… That what? He’ll take one look at you and change his mind about relationships? Realize you’re meant to be?

Joy stopped just inside the bar, feeling the embarrassment hot and prickly on the back of her neck. This was so stupid. What was she even doing?

She turned to go—and that’s when she saw him. Brennan was sitting at a small table by the stage. And he wasn’t alone. He was leaning forward, chatting with a strikingly hot redheaded woman. Smiling that same gorgeous smile, just the way he’d smiled at her last week. The way he probably smiled at every woman who caught his eye.

She couldn’t stop the sinking feeling in her chest as she turned to go, even as she told herself this was okay. Better than okay, it was a good thing she’d seen this—that she’d been confronted with this wake-up call. Time to get her head out of the clouds and accept that there was no fairy tale ending waiting for her. She was on her own because that was how she was supposed to be.

Joy turned and headed out of the bar. Thank goodness he hadn’t seen her.