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Leslie Kelly has written dozens of books and novellas for Harlequin Blaze, Temptation and HQN. Known for her sparkling dialogue, fun characters and depth of emotion, her books have been honored with numerous awards. Leslie lives in Maryland with her own romantic hero, Bruce, and their three daughters. Visit her online at www.lesliekelly.com
Marissa Marshall loved clear, sunny spring days, and, so far, this early May one was reminding her why.
Having lived in Baltimore for five years, she was used to gray, smoggy skies during the cold, bleak winter, and hazy ones in the summer. Fall was nice, with changing leaves ranging from pale yellow to deep rust. But in spring, Maryland came alive.
There was so much color. Cherry blossoms and azaleas dotted the landscape with pink and red. Lush farmlands erupted in mixed tones of new, freshly turned earth. With the soft green waters of the Atlantic, and the warm yellow sun drenching the robin's-egg-blue sky with life, the state was an artist's palette.
Funny, though. Her favorite part of springthe color she most enjoyed on a beautiful day like thiswas no color at all.
It was white. Just white. A sea of it.
"Dazzling," Marissa said. Though she'd been speaking to a woman behind the counter of the coffee shop where she'd stopped for a caffeine injection, she was looking out the window.
Students from the U.S. Naval Academy, wearing their immaculate uniforms, filled the streets of Annapolis. Though now coed, the USNA's student body was primarily male. So on this lovely Saturday afternoon, the town appeared full to the brim of handsome young midshipmenaka middiesin their dress whites, all celebrating making it through another tough year at the academy.
Women from all over the state flocked here on sunny spring days, just to have a good drool. Marissa among them.
"God, how can you survive this much hotness 24/7?"
The woman grunted. "They're always broke. I don't care how hot they are, I just wonder if they have cash in their pockets."
Marissa would probably wonder less about the contents of their pockets and more about what was in the rest of their pants. Anyone who didn't have something dangling in their own pants would. As would danglers with same-sex preferences.
The USNA might be renowned for its educational excellence, but a close second would have to be its military beefcake. Even Marissa, who had been single for so long she could call herself a sexual vegetarian, suddenly found herself craving a Manwich.
She knew better than to ever take a bite, though. Uniformed beefcake might taste good, but the thought of that uniform got stuck in her craw, choking her. She might like looking at them, but she had no use for military men. Not after having been sired by one. Her father was about as affectionate as a jellyfish.
Besides, lately, even men without uniforms had been few and far between. That, however, was her own fault.
In her real life, she was an overeducated nerd who'd just completed a doctoral program from one of the most prestigious universities in the countryJohns Hopkins. So she intimidated most men.
In her secret life, she was persona non grata with the male half of civilization due to her snarky books: Why Do Men Suck? and Thanks, But I'll Just Keep My Vibrator.
How strange that her blog, Mad-Mari.com, which she'd launched six years ago after a really bad date, had landed her here. What had started as an internet rant had grown into a website with tons of followers. Then came a book deal.
As Mad-Mari, she was sassy and irreverent while venting about the hell called dating and relationships. She'd railed against cheaters, chauvinists and misogynistic assholes. She'd met lots of those in academia, not to mention in the military world in which she'd been raised. Meanwhile, she'd also been writing her much more proper, respectable dissertation which touched on similar topics, just in a scholarly, scientific way.
In other words, no snark.
Thankfully, she'd published the books under a pseudonym. Very few people realized that the infamous man-bashing internet star, Mad-Mari, was really Marissa Marshall, PhD, whose dissertation had been excerpted in a highly respected psychology journal and in a military magazine. And she intended to keep it that way.
The barista set a cup on the counter. "Honestly, I've never been tempted to trade in my granny panties for something with cougar stripesthey're practically babies."
They might be babies next to the fiftyish server, but not to Marissa. The oldest cadets were twenty-three or so, not that far from her twenty-nine. But in terms of life experience, they were a different generation. From age fourteen, Marissa had been thrust into adulthood, nearly raising her own younger siblings.
There hadn't been much choice after their mother left.
While studying to earn her doctorate in psychology, she'd spent a lot of time trying to understand that. If pressed, she'd probably have to admit that trying to understand what drove people like her parents to do the things they did was one reason she'd settled on psychology from the day she'd started college.
Oh, she got why the marriage had failedher father was one of those chauvinistic misogynists she wrote about, cold and aloof. Not to mention a cheat, seeming to have a new affair on every base. But she couldn't grasp how a mother could decide to pay him back by having an affair of her own, then leave her kids, keeping in touch only with an occasional call or card. Some things, she suspected, she would never understand, no matter how many degrees she earned or how many letters came after her name.
"You have a good day. Try not to trip and fall into a pile of hot boys now, ya hear?" said the woman behind the counter.
Not impossible, given her three-inch heels. "Thanks."
Stepping outside, she instinctively closed her eyes and sucked in a deep breath. She lived near the Inner Harbor, but the air didn't smell nearly as potent. Downtown Baltimore lacked this fragrant mixture of saltwater, sweat and male.
"Excuse me, ma'am," a deep voice said.
Her eyes flying open, she saw a twentyish guy, dressed all in white. Marissa had stepped right into his path. "My fault."
Then something sunk in. He'd called her ma'am.
"Ma'am?" she mumbled. The professor under whom Marissa had interned was a ma'am. Her elderly neighbor, whose apartment always smelled like pickled beets, she was a ma'am. But Marissa?
When, by God, did I become a ma'am?
"Today, that's a good thing," she told herself. Today, she wanted to convey seriousness, maturity. Ma'am-ness. Today she was not Mad-Mari, she was Dr. Marissa Marshall. Even if she didn't yet know who that was, other than a name on a resume.
It was time to find out. Some people said going to school for so long and making a living by writing sassy words in the comfort of her own living room had been her means of escaping the reality of adulthood. Well, her best friend said it. And maybe her favorite college professor had, too.
Maybe she had been putting off the inevitable. Maybe the newly degreed shrink in her head was right in suspecting she'd been so sick of being forced to be an adult when she was a teenager that she'd needed to drop all responsibilities and focus only on herself during her twenties.
But that was over. She was ready for whatever came next, ready for part two of her life. Her blog and her books had been fun. They'd been stress relievers during her all-men-suck period (hence the title of her book). But she was a professional now. Time to put away the snark and move forward.
That's why her hair was pulled back in a severe bun. That's why she'd dressed in a simple blouse and a borrowed skirther own clothes being far too Mad-Mari-ish for Marissa Marshall. That's why she wore painful black pumps, more appropriate for a funeral in January than an appointment at the USNA in May. That's why she had actually contorted herself into a pair of pantyhose for the first time in several years.
Because today, she would be meeting with a Deputy to the Commandant of the Midshipmen, to convince him to hire her to give some guest lectures on campus. She needed the work. She needed the professional credit. And frankly, she needed the money.
Her royalties on her first book had been eaten up by tuitionJohns Hopkins was in no way cheap. The advance on her second book had been keeping her fed, but it was almost gone. There should be more coming in, but, in publishing, money flowed with the speed of sap off an elm. Whatever else she earned she would use to hang out her counseling shingle. For now, though, she couldn't afford insurance, much less office space.
So hearing from her former professor that the USNA was interested in talking to her about doing a few guest lectures for summer students had been a lifeline tossed when she'd been trying to decide between her cell phone and her cable-TV bills. The phone was important. But she wasn't sure she could give up her Starz Channel dates with the hot gladiators on Spartacus.
"Okay, gotta nail this," she said as she got into her car.
Reaching for her notebook, she read over the details for the interview. "King George Street to Gate 1," she mumbled. "First meeting at two, check in with security an hour before."
Oh, God. How had she forgotten that? She'd been so focused on preparing for the interview, she'd neglected the details!
"You idiot," she howled, eyeing the clock. Five 'til one.
Thrusting the key in the ignition, she prayed the car which had been giving her troublewould start easily. Fortunately, it groaned only once, then fired up.
Using a lead foot on the gas pedal, she got to the academy in a few minutes. Spying the correct building and the Employees Only lot in front, she weighed her options. The lot was almost empty, so she wouldn't be taking anybody's spot. Plus, if she had her way, she would be an employee this summer.
Decision made. Parking quickly, she exited the car, pausing to retuck her blouse and smooth her skirt. The pantyhose were beyond annoying, and she took a second to try to twist them into position. Which just tugged her panties into the wrong position.
"Oh, for God's sake," she whispered, feeling the elastic pa...