Command Performance

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Prologue “Where is the chocolate?” Maggie Barlow stood on her front porch, the door to the three-story mansion that had been in her family for generations open behind her, allowing the cooled air to escape into the hot July night. She watched her best friend since the second grade march up the steps with a pair of four-inch stilettos in her hand. Not a bakery box in sight. “You need these more.” Olivia thrust the shoes at her. Maggie looked down at the shiny white stilts she held and frowned. Twenty-four hours earlier, she’d caught her supposedly stable and reliable fiancé with his pants down—literally—and his nineteen-year-old research assistant bent over his desk wearing nothing but a pair of pink, fuzzy handcuffs. She needed double-fudge brownies, not shoes. In a lime-green sundress and pink platform sandals, Olivia looked as if she’d wandered away from a tropical vacation, not the upscale art gallery she managed. She marched into the foyer. “Come with me. I need to look in your closet.” “I ended things with Derrick,” Maggie said, following Olivia to the second story. “You thought I was crazy to marry a man because we had similar careers and interests. You said I was making the safe choice and turning my back on love because it was too messy. You hated him. We’re supposed to be celebrating.” “Oh, we will, but not here. I have a plan.” Olivia led the way to Maggie’s bedroom and pointed to the neatly made bed. “Sit while I find something for you to wear.” Maggie set the heels on the floor. They were beautiful shoes, but not for her. As a rule, she opted for sensible flats. She looked up as clothing flew out of her walk-in closet. Gray and black suits—boring, take-me-seriously work clothes perfect for a political science professor with a specialty in military studies—landed in a pile on the floor as Olivia searched for something she deemed appropriate for her “plan.” “You’re lucky there’s a car show at the Hudson Valley fairgrounds this weekend.” Olivia emerged from the closet holding the skinny jeans Maggie didn’t intend to wear outside the house until she gave up linguine Alfredo. Her friend tossed them on the bed and turned back to the closet. “Put these on while I find you a shirt.” Maggie went over to the growing pile of business suits. Piece by piece, she picked them up and carefully placed each one over the back of her armchair. “Why would we go to a car show?” Olivia reappeared with a backless green shirt. “The guys there will love your grandfather’s vintage Mercedes.” “The Mercedes is in the shop. I’m renting a Toyota for the weekend.” Her late grandfather’s car spent about as much time in the shop as it did out of it. “You could afford a new one,” Olivia pointed out. “But I love that car. It reminds me of happier times.” Before she’d lost her mother, before her grandfather passed away from a heart attack and before her father returned from war broken, unable to handle the fact that two bullets in the thigh had ended his career with the U.S. Army Rangers. “And why should anyone at a car show care what I’m driving?” Olivia picked up the clothes she’d selected and held them out to Maggie. “Because we’re going to find you a man. I did a Google search for the top ten places to meet men, and ‘car show’ was in the top five. It outranked baseball games. Now get dressed.” Maggie froze, the clothes in her arms. “I just ended my engagement. I don’t need to meet another man. I need to focus on work. I have to face a room full of generals at West Point on Monday morning. They’re in town for the president’s speech later this week, and the army’s demanding I speak with them before they’ll grant me access to the team of Rangers I need to interview for my book. This six-man team rode horses belonging to an Afghan warlord to rescue three female aid workers. They’re heroes. Modern-day cowboys. If I can secure these interviews, I’ll be able to share their accomplishments with the world.” Olivia put her hands on her hips. “You can prepare for your big meeting tomorrow. Tonight we’re going out.” Maggie shook her head and set the clothes back on the bed. “Liv, I can’t. I have four months to finish this book. My publisher wanted it yesterday. The war is essentially over and my editor is afraid the readers who bought the recent bestseller about the SEALs mission won’t care about what happened during the war once all the soldiers are home. If I don’t research and write it fast, they’ll find another author. They only picked me because I told them I could get access.” “You have a savings account and a home you own free and clear—you don’t need to work.” “Thanks to my grandfather,” Maggie interrupted. Her grandfather had been her rock, raising her after her mother passed away while her father was deployed overseas. Her grandfather had been born to wealth and had chosen to serve his country when he could have lived off his savings. In her mind, he’d always been a hero, even though he’d never been recognized for his accomplishments on the battlefield. Unlike her father, who’d received medals and accolades for a military career that had destroyed him. “But his fortune will run out eventually,” Maggie continued. “And it doesn’t provide the same stability as a career of my own. This could be my breakout book. Aside from my students and colleagues, no one bought my first one.” “I did,” Olivia said. “But you wrote about a bunch of marines sitting around and waiting. It was boring.” “It was an important reconnaissance mission,” Maggie said defensively. “That mission, well, never mind about that. If I hit the bestseller lists with my sophomore publication, I’ll be a shoo-in for tenure at the college. Tenure is about as close as you can get to a lifetime of job security.” Even her best friend, who’d stood by her through the loss of her grandfather and her father’s drinking, couldn’t understand. Maggie needed to succeed. If she let her control slip, let one responsibility fall by the wayside, her life would collapse like a series of dominos. She’d watched her father’s world crumble when he’d started drinking after his injury, taking hers with it until she’d learned to keep food in the house and the bills paid. But now that her dad had passed away, and she was on her own, she was willing to do whatever it took to keep her own world from falling apart again. “One night, Maggie. You need to do something for yourself. Something wild. You’ve been taking care of others for too long. You need to let go. Let someone take care of you and your needs for once. You need a sexual adventure.” Maggie felt her eyes widen. “A sexual adventure? You’re suggesting I pick up a man? At a car show?” Common sense told her it was a ridiculous plan, but parts of her body that had no business making decisions tingled and begged her to say yes. “Exactly. Your greatest excitement shouldn’t be a calorie splurge at the bakery.” Olivia picked up the clothes and held them out. “Now get dressed. You can’t find a one-night stand wearing yoga pants. I’ll wait for you downstairs.” Maggie sank onto the bed, her hands clutching the ridiculous shoes. She’d never be able to walk in them, but it was tempting, oh, so tempting to kiss her carefully planned life goodbye for a few hours. But a one-night stand? When was the last time she’d done that? College. She was twenty-eight years old and the best sex she’d ever had was in college. But even then it hadn’t been adventurous or wild. She closed her eyes. Until yesterday, she’d never have guessed her ex-fiancé would be into on-the-desk sex. And she’d never asked, never said, “that’s what I want.” But no girl who’d spent her high school and college years caring for an alcoholic dad instead of dating would be comfortable saying “this is what I need in bed,” would she? Maggie opened her eyes and reached for the skinny jeans, her hands trembling even as determination welled inside her. Olivia was right. She needed to do something for herself. She was tired of being that girl who was too afraid to ask for what she wanted from a man. Tired of being the caretaker, the writer, the teacher and, worst of all, the dutiful fiancée who got screwed over by her ex. Tonight she was going after what she wanted—one night with a man who could make her sexual fantasies come true. Chapter 1 “Goodbye, control,” Maggggie muttered, her hands trembling with a mix of excitement and nerves. “Hello, fantasy.” She stepped into the car show refreshment tent and paused, her fingers playing with the clasp on her purse. Fans blasted, but she still feared she might break into a sweat. And wouldn’t that be attractive? She forced her fingers to still. Sexy women, the ones who left men desperate to touch, possessed confidence, not anxiety. If she kept playing with that clasp, her bag might fall open and expose the box of ribbed-for-her-pleasure protection Olivia had given her in the car. Turning red with embarrassment wouldn’t help her confidence. Why shouldn’t she feel confident? She was a career-oriented author and professor. And she knew she looked good tonight. She had big breasts and a trim waist—both of which were on display thanks to the backless green shirt Olivia had chosen. Wearing it meant Maggie had been forced to leave her bra at home. She glanced down at the full D-cups pressing at the front of her shirt as if screaming to the room look at me! Had anyone noticed? Had one of these men caught sight of her and said, “Wow! I bet she would look great topless and bent over the hood of my car”? She scanned the tent and spotted a couple of men staring at her, their eyes never drifting above her chest. “The shirt. It’s working,” Maggie murmured to her best friend. Olivia stood half a step behind her, blocking the exit as if she feared Maggie might bolt at any moment. “Of course it is. Now all you have to do is walk to the bar and order a drink.” Maggie nodded, squared her shoulders and wobbled to the bar, silently cursing Olivia for insisting she wear the four-inch heels. Her feet ached for her sensible, everyday flats. But she needed the height advantage. Without the stilettos, all five foot three inches of her would be lost in the sea of towering males. And there were definitely Men here. Capital M. At the tables, on the folding chairs, leaning against the makeshift bar—muscular, don’t-mess-with-me Men. The type of guys she’d always admired from a distance, as if they were part of a display with a little sign that read Look, But Don’t Touch. Tonight she wanted to touch. Some wore uniforms, but most were dressed in civilian clothes. Still, their military-issue haircuts gave them away. They might be wearing jeans and T-shirts, but they were soldiers. Not that this was surprising. It made sense that a car show near a military academy would be overrun with soldiers and cadets. Most men liked cars. The guys in this tent probably spent 50 percent of their free time rebuilding their engines. Not Maggie. She’d never even changed a flat tire. Not once. Her nerves kicked into gear again. Her fingers drummed against her thighs as she picked her way through the crowd. She fought to quiet them and focus. She was on a mission. And it had nothing to do with car parts and everything to do with hard-bodied males. When they reached the temporary wooden counter, Maggie signaled the bartender. “Vodka tonic, please.” Olivia raised an eyebrow but didn’t say anything before adding a glass of white wine to the order. Their drinks arrived and Maggie took a long sip from hers. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d ordered hard liquor. She rarely drank the stuff, always afraid she might have inherited her father’s love of booze, and when she did have a drink, she generally preferred a glass or two of wine, or a beer on a hot summer afternoon. One sip of vodka and she was feeling warm and a little tipsy, which was surprisingly pleasant. It even dulled her desire to drive back down to Manhattan and hurl something at her ex. A few more of these and she might have the guts to follow through with Olivia’s crazy plan. “Liv, you do realize most of these guys are soldiers. Probably half either teach at or attend West Point.” Maggie noticed she’d downed half her drink. “What if I end up having to deal with one of them while researching my book?” “Relax, you won’t.” Olivia shook her head. “Anyway, I thought the men you were interviewing were based in Tennessee.” “They are, but the generals are in town.” Olivia reached over and patted her hand. “I promise I’ll make sure he’s not a general.” “But I could never date a soldier.” “It’s only for one night,” Olivia reminded her. “Why should you care what he does for a living if you’re not planning on seeing him beyond tonight? Maybe you’ll get lucky and find a mechanic. This is a car show.” Maggie drained the rest of her drink. “What if I pick a guy and he turns me down?” Her nerves—and the vodka—sent her stomach into somersaults. “What if I make a complete fool of myself? It’s not like I have a lot of experience with men.” “Look at me.” Olivia leaned closer. “You can do this. Now. Tonight. If you don’t, then duty, responsibility, your need to be the best at your job—it will smother you.” Maggie held on to the bar with one hand as Olivia’s words sank in. Her sense of duty had started smothering her years ago when her father began drinking. This was her chance to escape. If she didn’t act now, she might lose the part of herself that craved orgasms. The part of herself that wished she’d told her fiancé she wanted wild sex on his desk and so much more. “You’re right,” Maggie said softly. Olivia smiled and signaled the bartender for a second round. “Now, look around. See anything you like?” Feeling the vodka pulsing through her, Maggie boldly scanned the refreshment tent. What was she looking for? Muscles. The kind that came from the hard work required to transform a man into a soldier or from lifting engine parts. But four out of five guys in here looked like they could bench-press her one-handed. And thanks to her breasts, she wasn’t one of those hundred-pounds-soaking-wet women. She took a second look and mentally eliminated about half of them. Too young. She wanted a man who knew things about sex. She wanted an orgasm that left her breathless, boneless and begging for more. Her gaze landed on a green polo, tight but not too tight. And those biceps? They shouted touch me. Her eyes drifted over his shoulders to his face, framed by straight brown hair. She’d always liked brown hair. Staring at his profile—he was deep in conversation with an equally handsome but not quite as sexy man across the table—she could see his mouth curving upward in a half smile. Those lips. He had the type of mouth that begged a woman to say kiss me lower down, please. Maggie clutched her drink and drew her gaze away from his face. Twelve months of unfulfilling sex had driven her mad if she was thinking about his lips kissing her there before she’d even said a word to the guy. She blinked and took in the rest of him. She could see the endless length of his legs stretched out beneath the table. Her body tingled as she drank in the sight of him. With a long, sculpted body like that he must know how to do things, deliciously sinful, wild things that previously only existed in her fantasies. He turned and looked right at her, and then smiled. She tightened her grip on her nearly empty drink. Those eyes. That mouth. She’d bet her inheritance that man knew ten ways to give a woman the best orgasm of her life. If he looked at her like that much longer, she might come right here. Her thighs tightened at the thought. This man would say yes. He wouldn’t turn her down. Not after that look. Maggie blinked and turned to the bartender. “Cancel the vodka tonic. Just water, please.” The liquor had made her bold, maybe even a little reckless, but if she wished to remember every detail about tonight, she needed water. “Do you remember George Clooney when he was young? When he was on ER?” “Oh, yeah.” Olivia took her wine from the bartender. “He was on the show when we first started watching it in high school.” “Green polo, blue jeans at eight o’clock.” Olivia raised an eyebrow. “He’s not your usual type.” “He has George Clooney’s eyes. Bedroom eyes.” Maggie reached for her water and drained half the glass. “Tonight, he’s my type.”