The Man I Want To Be

Book 3 | Under Covers series

Releasing February 26, 2018


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First rule of weddings – don’t fall for the bridesmaid. 

DEA agent Bryan Tyke hates weddings. He hates them even more when he’s forced to travel to a hot as hell beach resort to watch his best friends say I do, while acting happy about it. He isn’t happy. If those two want to buy into happily ever after, good for them. That isn’t in the cards for Tyke. It hasn’t been since he joined the army years ago and lost everything. That is, until the woman he’s never forgotten shows up as a bridesmaid and puts herself into immediate danger.

Kenna McCord has bigger issues than running into the gruff, sexy guy who broke her heart. Someone is stealing from wedding guests, including her late mother’s sapphire ring, and Kenna needs to find the thief ASAP. Reluctantly, she agrees to let Bryan use his skills and resources to help with the investigation, knowing full well it will lead to nothing but frustration and more broken promises. Unfortunately, there’s still something between them that can’t be denied…

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Reviews for The Man I Want To Be:

“This book has it all. A touch of humor, a bit of mystery, and a ton of heat, heart, and hope. I loved it!”   
- Kira Archer, romance author

“When it comes to hotfun thrill rides, Christina Elle delivers!” - Avery Flynn, USA Today Bestselling Author

"LOVED this book!  This novel has it all - a compelling story, characters I cared about, poignant moments, and moments that made me laugh so hard I cried." - Linda Q., NetGalley


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Chapter One: 

Weddings sucked.

Okay, maybe they didn’t suck so much as they blew.

No. They didn’t do that, either.

All right, fine, weddings were okay. What wasn’t okay was being stuck on a secluded island, at a ritzy, exclusive resort with no escape, surrounded by people with nothing but “love,” “happily ever after,” and “forever” on their minds.

Bryan Tyke stood in his untied black combat boots in the pristine, white sand, scowling at every passerby. He’d be goddamned if he was going to walk around in flip-flops like everyone else and burn the shit out of his feet. Fuck that. It was enough that he was here. He wasn’t going to act happy about it or dress the part.

His best friends and DEA teammates, Ash Cooper and Luke Calder, were getting married this week. Not to each other. To women. Women that had bamboozled the men into thinking married bliss actually was a thing. Big whoop for them if they wanted to buy into that idea. Tyke didn’t. Forever wasn’t in the cards for him. Not now. Not ever. He’d been close to marrying once, and well…he didn’t think about that anymore.

Back to the island wedding. Instead of going to the courthouse or eloping to Vegas like normal people, his friends insisted on dragging their guests thousands of miles for a fun-filled week of games, dinners, and carefully rehearsed nuptials.

Joy.

Tyke sipped his Mexican beer from the all-inclusive bar—the only thing making this whole experience tolerable—watching one of the resort staffers coordinate a badminton competition for the wedding guests.

Tyke turned to his most practical (and last remaining single) DEA teammate, Jason Reese. “Explain to me why we aren’t Jet Skiing right now.”

Reese sipped from his cup of orange liquid topped with a green umbrella, looking at ease in his bright Hawaiian shirt and salmon-colored shorts. “Because Ash said we had to be here or else he would cut off our balls and shove them down our throats.”

Tyke winced at the memory. “Ah, right.” 

“I’m very fond of my balls.” Reese turned his attention to the sandbox filled with badminton nets. “Plus, I actually think the competition will be enjoyable.”

“Of course you would,” Tyke said. “You love this kind of shit.”

Jason pressed his sunglasses, which sat on top of his actual glasses, farther up the bridge of his nose, then shrugged.

“Man.” Tyke took a better look at his friend. “Why the fuck are you wearing two pairs of glasses? You look like a ninety-year-old woman with cataracts.”

Reese touched his face as if he’d forgotten about the items he’d just adjusted. “My prescription sunglasses broke before we left. So…” He shrugged again. “Does it really look that bad?”

The flicker of nerves on Reese’s face was a first. The team often joked that Reese was more robot than human because he rarely showed emotion, was always calm under pressure, and could calculate anything in his head in milliseconds. The vulnerability made Tyke pull back.

“Who gives a shit what you look like?” he said. “Who are you trying to impress? Have you taken a look around?” Tyke did a wide sweep of the beach area. “Everyone’s either from the nursing home or already married with ten kids.”

Reese wasn’t listening, instead his gaze was fixed on a cute blonde about twenty yards away, laughing with her just-as-cute brunette friend. Sorority sisters of one of the brides, if he remembered correctly. Tiffany and Hillary. Candy and Tandy. Or some shit. 

The blonde was wearing a slim-fitting white sleeveless shirt that showed off her full rack and short hot-pink bottoms that drew attention to her long, tanned legs. Tyke couldn’t fault Reese for admiring her.

She just wasn’t tempting enough for Tyke.

He was more of a redhead with curves in all the right places kind of guy. Or at least he had been once upon a time.

Guilt spiraled its way down his throat, taking residency in the pit of his stomach. But like he’d done so many times before when the inkling of his past inched back, he pushed it aside the best way he knew how. With alcohol. Tyke downed another long swig of beer, closing his eyes and relishing the cold liquid coating his insides like a balm. It cooled him off for a second before the hot Mexican sun pelted down, and he started sweating again.

Shake it off. After a quick exhale, he opened his eyes and glanced across the sand at ten squares serving as playing fields. Nets were dug into the middle of each square. Everyone of eligible playing age stood around the perimeter, waiting to be placed into pairs.

More icebreaker bullshit. Why couldn’t he just partner up with Reese and get this over with? No, he had to mingle and converse with people he didn’t know. This was Samantha Harper’s idea. He normally loved the woman. She was Ash’s fiancée and was like a sister to Tyke. But not when she came up with shit like this to torture him.

The resort worker walked around with a bowl that held cards inside. There were matching pairs of every color and number. Guests had to pull a card and then find the person who had the match. That was your partner. Tyke held a blue number two. So far, no one had shouted his number.

“Red number six,” the cute blonde Reese was eyeing up said. “Who has red number six?”

Reese’s head kicked back, and he drained the remaining orange liquid in his cup. He pulled the umbrella out of his drink and slid it over his ear like a freaking cha-cha dancer. “That’s me. See you on the sand.” Reese gave him a wide, excited smile before meeting his partner in the center of the circle.

Bryan lifted his dark bottle in salute to his friend’s retreating back. “Good luck with that one. You’re gonna need it.” The woman didn’t look like she had an ounce of athleticism in her body. Cheerleading, maybe. And being able to kick your foot up over your head only helped in certain situations. Badminton wasn’t one of ’em.

Tyke scanned the group, sizing the wedding guests up. He hated meeting new people. But he hated losing more, so he needed a stellar partner. No uncoordinated, flailing-arms-of-a-prepubescent-teenager garbage. He wanted a real player. Someone who could keep up and play like a man. Another guy on the other side of the sand stood about Tyke’s height but not as wide. The guy reached into the bowl and pulled his card out.

Blue two.

Blue two.

Say blue two, you lanky son of a bitch.

“Blue,” the guy shouted, glancing down at the card. “Number four.”

Motherfucker. 

Tyke downed the rest of his beer in one gulp. He waved an arm to catch the attention of a passing waiter.

The waiter approached, wearing a white short-sleeved shirt and matching shorts, socks and tennis shoes. “Another, sir?”

“You know what?” Bryan said. “Bring me two. What the hell. I’m celebrating my best friends never owning their dicks again.”

The waiter did a double take and tried to laugh. When Tyke didn’t reciprocate, the guy’s eyebrows furrowed.

“Does anybody have blue number two?” an impatient voice shouted.

That was his card. Shit. Tyke put his empty bottle on the waiter’s tray.

“That’s me.” He pulled out his wallet and handed a ten to the waiter. “Just bring the beers to whatever shit-box area I’m assigned to.”

“Blue number two?” a female voice said behind him. A few soft taps from a pointy finger landed on his back, below his right shoulder.

He turned.

She was shorter than average height for a woman, but then again, everyone looked short next to him. She had fiery, bright-red hair pulled into a messy ponytail on top of her head. Her pale-blue eyes were warm and welcoming, even smiling.

Then she met his gaze, and something registered in her brain because her blue eyes went icy.

It took him a few seconds longer…

Short height.

Red hair.

Pale-blue eyes.

Oh, fuck.

Kenna McCord.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked.

No. No. No. This was all wrong. Usually when Kenna came to him, it was at night—while he was in bed—after staring at the clock for hours, hard as steel and unfulfilled, praying for sleep. Jesus, had his visions gotten so bad that now she was haunting him during the day, too? That thought, mixed with the guilt still gurgling in his belly, made him rethink his drink of choice. He should probably switch to water.

He stared without blinking at the apparition in front of him. She wasn’t smiling like she usually did in his nightmares. Instead, the woman’s originally delighted features transformed. Her face caved in, her pink glossy lips puckered, and auburn eyebrows gathered at the center of her forehead.

She lifted her foot—why the hell was she picking that up?—and she swung it with more force than a woman her size should’ve possessed. It connected with his shin, just above where his boots ended.

“Damn it,” he grunted, bending to grab his throbbing leg. When he did, she took full advantage. She reared back and punched him in the chin. Hard. Exactly liked he’d taught her when they were kids. Pain exploded in his brain as his head whipped to the side. He scrambled forward to grab her, but she took off in huff.

The pain in his leg and face didn’t relent. Which could only mean one thing—Kenna wasn’t a vision. She was here. After twelve years, she was back and there was no escape from his past and what he’d done to her.

***

Kenna McCord shuffled as fast as she could across the hot sand, cursing herself for not taking her trainer up on the extra sessions he’d offered. Cardio was not her friend, and it was never more evident than right now as she struggled for air after only a handful of rushed steps. How did Pamela Anderson make running across the sand look so effortless? She hadn’t, Kenna decided. Pamela Anderson was full of shit.

She swiped the back of her hand over her clammy forehead, pulling with it a few annoying little hairs that were falling into her eyes.

He was here. Bryan. Or as she called him: Bear. Her long ago love and once fiancée. She’d practically been a child then. That time in her life seemed a million years ago. But his betrayal certainly felt fresh based on the way her body simmered with renewed anger.

Out of all the beaches in the world, why did he have to be on this one?

She made it to the edge of the badminton playing area before a strong hand gripped her arm and jerked her to a stop. She gasped and tried to pull against the restraint, but she knew from experience it was futile. The man attached to the hand was not only stubborn, but he was stronger than a raging bull.

She whirled around to face him, casting her anger out like a force field. “What?

“Fuck.” He drew back. “It’s really you.”

“Of course it’s me,” she said, crossing her arms.

He looked different now. He’d been a clean-cut, twenty-one-year-old when she’d last seen him. He was still tall as an oak tree and wide as a barn. But his hair was long, secured at the base of his skull with a rubber band. He had a full beard that made him appear gruffer. His broad, muscular chest and defined biceps that were noticeable even with a shirt on were also new. As she looked at him now, he most definitely personified his childhood nickname of Bear.

He narrowed his eyes like he still didn’t believe it. “What are you doing here?”

“I belong here. What are you doing here?” She jabbed a finger into his solid chest, trying to impale him, but immediately regretted the motion when a stroke of pain shot up her hand. Damn, his chest was even firmer than she remembered.

His jaw tightened. “That’s impossible. You don’t know anyone. You don’t have any family.”

Okay, that struck a nerve. He was right. She didn’t have immediate family to speak of. Only Aunt Estelle. But that was no reason to hold it against her and act like she was some sorry loser.

Asshole.

She hauled her fist back again, but before she could connect a second time with his arrogant face, he caught it in his big palm. Kenna pulled her hand back and thrust it on her popped-out hip.

His bushy eyebrows crunched together. “What the fuck was that for? Stop punching me.”

“I’m such a loser,” she said. “That it? I don’t have any friends or family so there’s no way anyone would want to invite me to a beautiful beach like this?”

“What? No. That’s not what I meant. It’s just—I’m surprised. I didn’t expect you to be here. After…” He swallowed and ran a hand over his crown of shoulder-length, dirty-blond hair. “You know, after everything that happened. I just figured you’d want to stay as far away from me as possible.”

“I do, believe me.” Kenna relished in his hurt expression. Oh, how she wanted to give him a piece of her mind. She’d practiced for weeks what she’d say to him when he finally returned home. She was geared up and ready to blast him with everything she had.

I trusted you. Gave you my whole heart, every tiny shred, and you ripped it out without a second glance. You made me love you. Live for you. Want to marry you, and then you walked away and never came back. Twelve years you kept me waiting…and like an idiot, I did. I loved you even when everyone in our small town told me it was a lost cause. That you’d forgotten me. Us.

I never gave up hope.

Until finally one day she’d woken up and decided she didn’t want to live in misery anymore. The only solution she’d come up with was to never place her trust in another person and allow them the power to crush her like Bear had done. So she’d hardened herself. She’d moved on, ignoring the incessant slice of emptiness of never knowing what she’d said or done to keep him away.

“I’m going to ask this one more time,” he said, dragging her back to the present. “What are you doing here?”

Her chin shot backward. “Excuse me? Like you have a right to order me around?” She slapped her palms against his hard chest and tried to give him a firm shove. She’d never been able to do it in the past, so she didn’t know what made her think she could move him now. Frustrating man. “What are you doing here?”

His hands closed around her wrists like steel bands, holding her palms against him. He stepped forward, pressing his body to hers. Bold, she’d give him that. He was well within range where she could get a knee into an important part of his anatomy.

He must have seen the deadly gleam in her eyes and remembered that her stubbornness rivaled his, because he released her.

He sighed, stepping back. “Ash and Luke are my best friends. I’m here for them.”

“Friends from the Army?”

“No. We’re in the DEA together.”

DEA?” she nearly shrieked. “So you’re not in the Army anymore? When did you get out?” She couldn’t explain her surprise. It had been more than a decade after all. He could’ve done anything in that time. But her last real memory had been sending him off to basic training. He’d made it clear he was going to make a career out of the military. It’s all he’d wanted to do.

I’ll be back, Kenna, he’d told her. I’ll come back for you, and we’ll build a life together. No matter where the Army sends me, we’ll be together.

“I left the Army years ago,” he said with a confused expression.

He was just full of leaving, wasn’t he?

“Why? I thought you—”

“I just did, okay?” he snapped. “It doesn’t matter why.”

Obviously a sore subject but fine. It wasn’t her concern anymore.

She shifted her weight and placed a hand on her forehead. “So does this mean you’re not only here to attend the wedding, but that you’re in the wedding, too?”

He eyed her with an unreadable expression. “That’s right.”

She huffed a laugh. “Great.”

“Why?”

“Do you remember me telling you about the summers I spent with my great-aunt in Baltimore?”

He nodded, his eyes blank for a second before morphing into recognition. “Ah, shit. Which one?”

“Which one what?”

“The grannies. Which one is your aunt? Maybel? Rose?”

“Estelle.”

Bear barked out a laugh. “The batshit one. Of course.” He shook his head in disbelief. “Un-fucking-believable. So that’s your connection? You’re here as what? Estelle’s date?”

“No. I’m here for Sammie.” She’d spent summers as a young girl, staying with Great-Aunt Estelle. She looked forward to it every year because it gave her a chance to see Samantha Harper, her childhood best friend.

As if summoned, Sammie sprinted in their direction, distraught expression in place. Trailing was her fiancé, Ash Cooper.

Sam stopped in front of them, sucking in air like it was going out of style. Sam’s long blond hair was pulled into a high ponytail, and she wore an adorable white tank top and white tennis skort ensemble that showed off her athletic build.

Ash slammed to a halt next to Sam, a worried look on his rugged face. His five o’clock shadow was more I forgot to shave than it was I wanna look badass. Though, he definitely did look badass with his high-and-tight military haircut, slim-fitting T-shirt across wide shoulders and thick biceps, and cargo shorts.

“What’s going on here? Why is she punching you?” Sam asked Bear, then swung her concerned blue eyes on Kenna. “Why are you punching him?”

“I want a new badminton partner,” Kenna said, giving Bear her back.

“Okay,” Sam said slowly, sliding a quick, cryptic look at her fiancé. She came back to Kenna, and said, “Is there a reason you don’t like your current partner? Or, you know, why you’d punch him in the face after just meeting him?”

“Well, it is Tyke,” Ash said, lips twitching. “There’re days I wanna punch him, too.”

Bear gave his friend the finger.

She glanced down at her navy flip-flops, brand-new baby-pink nail polish on her toes, and the hot sand beneath them. God, what she wouldn’t give for a huge batch of quicksand right now. Please swallow me up and save me from having to confront all of this, in front of an audience no less.

Sam was staring at her, waiting for a response.

Kenna groaned, knowing her next statement was going to blow open the door she’d kept firmly locked for most of her adult life. “I didn’t just meet him.”

The other couple getting married this week, Luke Calder and Cassandra Stone, joined them.

“Shit,” Bear grumbled. “Calder, really? Let’s just invite the whole goddamn party over here.”

Luke slid his free hand into the front pocket of his flat-front shorts, grinning like he’d won some sort of prize. “Come on, Tyke. You think I’d give up the chance to meet the woman who just decked you? Hell, I want to buy her a drink.”

“Drinks are free this week,” Bear muttered.

“Then I’ll at least shake her hand.” He extended an arm to Kenna. She accepted and shook.

In a white, slim-fit T-shirt, pressed khaki shorts, dazzling smile, and aviators, Luke looked every bit the pretty boy Sam had described him as. His fiancée fit neatly under his arm, looking approachable in a simple sundress, flat sandals, and her brunette hair pulled into a bun. Her eyes were gentle and patient, skills no doubt acquired from years working as a guidance counselor in inner-city schools.

Kenna took in the sight of Bear’s friends, seeming so big and superhuman, and she couldn’t help but compare them. Ash was smack in the middle of Luke and Bear in terms of looks. He wasn’t pretty boy or dashing like Luke, but he wasn’t a beastly animal of a man like Bear, either. It was evident Ash demanded authority and could probably snap a man’s neck with a simple twist of his large, shapely arms. Luke, although much leaner in build, had something in the set of his shoulders that told Kenna he was agile. Quick. He didn’t need bulk muscle like his friends. He could handle himself at a moment’s notice if needed. It was overwhelming. Being surrounded by the triple power.

“So you two have met before?” Ash asked with an amused gleam in his eyes.

Bryan’s cheeks colored, which caused Ash’s eyebrows to lift to his hairline. “Holy shit,” Ash said. “You’ve done more than just meet.”

Bear’s jaw worked, and he looked away.

“This is freaking awesome.” Luke clapped his hands. “Do tell.”

Sam glanced at Kenna for an explanation. Which caused the rest of the faces to turn her way. Crap. She’d kill for one of those drinks Luke offered a minute ago. A double, in fact.

Kenna chewed on the inside of her cheek. She and Bear were stuck together for seven whole days. Seven. An entire week. She’d spent twelve years burying their past so she’d never have to think about it again. And now she had to face him every day on this small private island.

Kenna had seen the schedule for the week. It was jam-packed with activities. They were expected to attend as much as possible. It would be rude to skip out just because she was trying to avoid the one person who single-handedly broke her heart and stole her future.

“Sammie,” she said. “You remember me telling you about Bear…” She trailed off, knowing her friend would remember. They’d talked for hours on the phone, Sammie offering every consoling word in the English language, after Kenna realized Bryan wasn’t coming back.

The other woman nodded. “Of course.”

Kenna pulled her lips inward and nodded right along with Sam.

Anytime, quicksand. Anytime.

Sammie glanced at Bryan, then at Kenna. “Wait, you mean…?”

Biting her bottom lip, Kenna closed her eyes and dropped her chin once.

Sam turned her attention to Bryan. “You’re Bear?”

Who?” Ash and Luke asked at the same time.

Luke snorted a laugh. “Like…teddy bear?”

Kenna’s gaze journeyed Bryan’s tall frame all the way down to his black combat boots and back up. “No. Like grizzly bear.”

“It’s him,” Sam said through a gasp. “Oh, honey. I had no idea. If I’d known, I would’ve never…”

“Known what?” Ash asked. “What’s going on?”

Sam placed her hand on Ash’s chest. “He and Kenna were engaged. He’s the one who got away.”

Bear’s eyes went wide like saucers.

Kenna nearly suffocated on her saliva. “Wrong. He’s the one who went away. There’s a difference. And engaged implies love. It wasn’t love. It was—” She groaned. “Ugh, I don’t know what it was. But it wasn’t love, okay?”

It couldn’t have been. She’d given him everything. Every single piece of her, and he’d crushed it in his bare hands without any remorse. That’s not what real love should feel like.

Bear recovered and stared at her, his jaw working.

“Well, it’s the truth,” she told him, then turned to their audience. The last thing she needed was their pity or invasive questions. She’d dealt with that enough over the last decade. No more. It was his turn. She connected with Sam’s interested gaze, taking note of the woman’s slight smile. Kenna cleared her throat, pushing aside the uncomfortable feeling of being under a microscope. “He proposed to me one day and then never came back. Left me wondering for years where he was and what he was doing. Sent me some quick bullshit email about me needing to move on without him.”

They’d met when they were eight. Math class. He sat behind her and threw little balled-up pieces of paper into her hair. That was the first time she tried to punch him. Their height difference wasn’t as vast back then, so she managed to bop him in the jaw, her fist bouncing off as if his skin had been rubber. It was enough to startle him but not do real damage. He’d recovered quickly and told her that if she was going to punch, then she ought to learn how to do it the right way. By thirteen they’d started dating. By sixteen they’d slept together. And by eighteen they were dreaming about their future together. He’d enlisted at twenty-one, proposed to her, and that was the last she saw of him.

Until today.

“You were engaged?” Luke asked Bryan. “To her? Why the hell did you screw that up?”

Bear ran a quick hand over his hair again. “It’s complicated, okay?”

Complicated? That’s it? They’d planned a life together. Children. Hell, if they’d had a little girl, they’d agreed to name her after Kenna’s late mom. And complicated was his best defense for destroying their future?

“It’s over,” Kenna said, working to get her anger back in check. “Our differences don’t have to ruin a beautiful week for you guys. Bear and I”—snickers came from Ash and Luke’s general direction—“will avoid each other the whole time we’re here.” She turned to the brute. “Right?”

Bear scanned the faces of their engrossed audience and his cheeks deepened. “Fine,” he agreed.

His embarrassment threw her a little. It’s what she’d been aiming for by airing their dirty laundry to his friends. But he’d never been one to show emotion or weakness before. Hell, in all the years they’d been together, he’d never once let her see him cry. So now, taking in his reaction, she considered that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t the same stubborn boy she’d once known.

But as quick as the flush came, it was gone just as fast.

Bear stood at full height, which still had the power to do things to her, given the small flip in her tummy, damn it, and he said, “Sam’s my new badminton partner.”

“Me?” Sammie asked, surprised. “Don’t you mean Ash?”

“Hell no,” Bryan said. “Have you seen him handle a racket?”

Then again. Maybe not.

 


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Check out all the books in the Under Covers series!