Book 5 in the Love Undercover Series
Book 5 in the Love Undercover Series
They’ve been crushing on each other for months… So what’s holding them back?
For Marcus Bareden, Lucy Cortland is more than the girl next-door. She’s beautiful, funny, and easy to talk to. He’d really like to get closer, but something about her occasional wariness sets off his spidey sense. When he was nine, Marcus was plucked from an abusive situation and adopted by the most amazing parents a boy could wish for.
Lucy Cortland spent years overcoming an awful youth. Now, she’s got a great job, her own place, and a super sexy neighbor. Marcus is warm, kind, and they’ve become good friends. She’s only known him a few months, but their chemistry is undeniable. Yet for Lucy, getting close isn’t possible.
Lucy believes no one could love her after what she’s been through. No one could understand…except maybe the guy next-door, who knows how it feels to be mistreated, and how hard it can be to learn to hope—even love—again.
A note from Lori: Marcus was a secondary character in Getting Rowdy, book 3 the Love Undercover series.
Reviews of Marcus
is Book 5 in the Love Undercover Series
The full series reading order is as follows:
Read An Excerpt
Marcus Bareden folded his arms over the railing that separated his first-floor apartment from his neighbor’s. Yes, he’d been watching for her. That happened a lot. When she wasn’t hanging out with him and his friends, he missed her and thought of her and anticipated seeing her again. If someone asked him what it was about Lucinda Cortland that made her special, he wouldn’t be stumped. He could give a list of qualities that would probably never end.
Polished looks weren’t one of them, but only because, for some reason, Lucy seemed unconcerned with her appearance. She favored unflattering clothes and usually kept her long hair in a not-too-tidy ponytail. To him, it didn’t matter.
Just as he got sleepy at night, or how he’d sweat after a workout. It happened. He thought of Lucy and awareness burned through him. He saw her, and he wanted her.
Not just in bed, though it was near the top of his list. He wanted to chat with her, laugh with her, share goofy insults…just be with her.
In ways she probably didn’t realize, she was unique, and it wouldn’t matter what she wore, or how she fixed her hair. Men would notice her.
He wanted her to notice him back. Not just as a friend, or a neighbor.
He wanted more.
With Lucy, he wanted a future.
She had that effect on him, making him think about settling down and getting a house and sharing holidays together.
Calling out to her, he asked, “Need some help?”
Using her hip to help balance two overflowing grocery bags, Lucinda, better known as Lucy, glanced up, and she smiled, too, while coming up the walkway.
The things that smile did to him…
“Hey, Marcus. No, I’ve got it.” She made it to the small landing in front of her apartment door. Bags precariously balanced, she wrestled her keys into the lock…and a bag broke. Cans rolled. Apples spilled out. A pack of mini-wienies landed with a soft thump. “Damn.”
A spilled bag was as good of an excuse as any, so Marcus bounded over the railing and headed her way.
“Should’ve made two trips.”
“Screw you, too.”
He laughed at how she said that without a single speck of real animus. He loved how Lucy made him laugh.
“I could wish,” he said with suggestive undertones, which caused her to pause for a single heartbeat…before she laughed again. So far, she hadn’t taken any of his flirting comments seriously, but he was working on that. It’d be a balance, trying to gauge her interest without putting her off. She’d placed herself in the friend zone only, and what a friend she made.
When they both knelt at the same time, and reached for the same thing, they knocked heads.
Lucy dropped back on her butt. “Ow, damn.” Big doe eyes—dark, sexy eyes, though she didn’t seem to realize it—stabbed him with accusation. “I said I’ve got it.”
“Uh-huh.” Luckily, Lucy was the type of person he could razz without her really getting angry. “I can see that.” They gave each other crap all the time—much like they each did with his friends, Bray, Knox and Ford. Only Lucy wasn’t a guy, and even with her scowling at him, his body made note of it.
Like now, when she went quickly to her knees to snatch up cookies and Pop-Tarts. The sun-warmed scent of her heavy, dark blond hair, caught up in that loose, sloppy ponytail, teased his nostrils. One of these days, he’d love to see her hair hanging free.
Wouldn’t be today.
She reached for an apple that had rolled under a rocker, and her loose T-shirt pulled up, exposing twin dimples flanking her spine, right at the flare of her hips. Given the clothes she favored, this was the first peek he’d gotten, and damned if it didn’t deepen his breathing.
Unfortunately, that quick glimpse didn’t last. Immediately, she tugged the shirt down, stood, and hiked up her straight-legged jeans.
Flustered, she avoided his gaze. “I left the house at six this morning. It’s hotter than Hades today and crazy humid, too, so my jeans are a little stretched out of shape.” After doing quick adjustments to cover every curve, she bent at the waist and grabbed up the bag with the unbroken handle. “Well, come on. You’re here, so you can carry in the rest.”
Liking that plan, Marcus gathered up vegetables, meat and cans, and followed her. “You saw me taking a peek, didn’t you?”
“Nothing to peek at, so shush it.” She went straight through the dining room and into her kitchen as if being chased.
Maybe she was more attuned to his changing determination than she let on.
Usually she gave off zero vibes of interest. If there’d been a vibe, it was that of not interested. In anyone.
Since Marcus had been paying close attention, he knew she never dated. Not once in the six months he’d known her had he seen her with a guy. Or a woman. So…hell, he didn’t really know much about her sexuality, but he knew they both liked MMA, that she got along great with his friends, that she fit in with his family. Everyone liked Lucy.
She had a way about her that put people at ease. You met Lucy and instantly felt as if you’d known her forever. When others spoke, she genuinely listened. More than a few times, that had prompted his friends—her friends now, too—to share concerns with her, to use her as a sounding board. Occasionally he’d done the same, especially concerning his work as a cop. Somehow, at the end of a bad day, Lucy seemed to know. She’d be there, offering her friendly smiles, often a homemade cookie or two, and quiet understanding. Other times, she’d harass him out of a bad mood by giving him shit.
He loved it. He loved…no. Until he knew how she felt, he didn’t want to go there.
They had a connection, damn it, but she’d yet to acknowledge it.
Seeing the chocolate chips in the bag he carried, Marcus asked, “Dare I hope?”
She glanced up, grinned, and said, “Those are for tonight, yeah. I’ll make a double batch.”
Whenever he, Ford, Knox and Bray got together for a pay-per-view MMA event, Lucy joined them, and she never came empty-handed. The guys would bring cola or beer, depending on each one’s mood, and sometimes a bag of tortilla chips.
Lucy brought roasted veggie flatbread, spring rolls, breaded chicken bites… She was forever coming up with the perfect finger food, and plenty of it. Delicious stuff that they all relished. She knew how to cook, and she knew how to spoil people. The best part was that she seemed to enjoy doing both.
“You know you’re too good to us, right?”
“Very, very true.” More relaxed now that he wasn’t discussing that hint of flesh he’d seen, Lucy moved around her kitchen, putting some things away and arranging others on the counter. “But you’re always appreciative, so I’m glad to do it. Besides, you refuse to let me pitch in on the cost of the pay-per-view.”
“The guys can cover it.” Whenever they watched their favorite fighters compete, everyone who joined him ponied up to help cover the cost. Marcus hosted, Lucy brought snacks…it worked.
Those nights had become his favorites—because of Lucy.
Other women had occasionally come along with Knox or Ford, but mostly just as a date. They weren’t into the actual fights, didn’t know much about the fighters, and tended to cover their eyes at the violence.
Not Lucy. She got into it, calling out suggested moves, anticipating when a fighter would tap or escape, and cheering as loud as he did when her fighter of choice won. Three weeks ago during a championship bout, she’d exploded off her seat in anger when a ref made a bad call, then launched against him for a hug when the fighter won anyway.
He still recalled how it had felt to hold her for those few seconds. He knew she’d felt it, too, because she’d gone still, looked into his eyes with new and heated awareness, then darted away.
She hadn’t hugged him since.
Holding a can in each hand, Marcus glanced around, wondering how to help, until she tried to take them from him. He lifted them out of reach. “Just tell me where to put them.”
“In my hands.” Slender arms lifted, and she wiggled her fingers in a gimme gesture.
With her face turned up to his, her big brown eyes playfully stern, he just naturally thought of other things. Like the way her five-foot-six-inch frame had fit against his. Holding her, even for that very brief time, had been an eye-opener.
Lucy was slimmer than some might realize, but she had plenty of soft curves. Even with him six feet tall, and her always in flats, reaching her mouth wouldn’t cause a kink in his neck. He thought of the warmth of her skin, and how every so often he saw reciprocal heat in her pretty eyes.
Unaware of the path his thoughts were taking, she huffed in mock impatience—and the urge to kiss her hit Marcus hard. His gaze dropped to her mouth and held there. He saw her lips soften. Felt her sudden curiosity. She wavered closer.
What would she do if he leaned down and—
Lucy answered that question by spinning away. In another rush, she shot across the floor to a lower cabinet and swung it open. “Right here,” she said, her voice slightly squeaky. “But sort them correctly, okay?”
Marcus didn’t move. At twenty-five, he should have been well past the age of stampeding lust, but damn, he’d just felt it in a big way. Like an assault on his senses, the thought of touching her, tasting her, had his body tightening, spiked his temp, and put vivid carnal images into his brain.
He wanted her. Right now. Here in the kitchen would suit him just fine.
But there was Lucy, now standing across the room, anxiously waiting to see what he would do, and no way did he want to make her uneasy. She meant too much to him for that.
Through her own actions, she’d set the parameters of their friendship from the first day they met. For a short while there, he’d been content with that since she was such great company. Plus, with her right next door, he’d reasoned that it could be awkward if they got together and things tanked.
So he’d gone along with her preferences, and she’d treated him like she did everyone else.
Little by little, though, he’d noticed her noticing things. The way he’d catch her watching him. How she’d flush and quickly look away when his gaze met hers. She always tried to cover it with some inane comment—like where to store her canned goods.
Every time he got close, she bolted, but then came right back with the gal pal attitude. Until he figured out why, he’d have to bide his time.
“Got it,” he said, hoping to ease her. “Corn with corn, beans with beans.”
Tension left her shoulders. “Thanks.” She took the fruit to the fridge and stored it in a drawer.
Of course his gaze went to her backside. A nicely rounded backside, not that most people had noticed, given her lack of style.
He wasn’t most people. He noticed everything about Lucy, and had from the day he’d met her.
All those baggy, oversized shirts…he had a feeling her clothing choices were about more than comfort.
Pondering many things, Marcus put away the groceries.
“You had to be in court today, right?” She glanced at him while getting down a mixing bowl. “How’d that go?”
Just like Lucy, to be concerned. The mention of the fiasco in court had rage resurfacing. Time and time again today, he’d had to tamp it down, to remain professional, to maintain some detachment.
But that shit was pretty damned personal.
Lucy didn’t know that, and he wasn’t about to go into it now. “It’s settled, thank God. The bastard will never see his kid again.”
As a cop, Marcus had many jobs, with testifying in court one of his least favorites, especially in a case like the one he had today. At least this time, things had gone as they should.
Going still with a look of trepidation, Lucy breathed, “The kid? What kid?”
Damn. He’d already said too much. Leaning back on the counter, Marcus tried to gloss over it to avoid stirring up his anger again. “The dad was an abusive dick who used his son for a punching bag. If a relative hadn’t been suspicious and called it in, the kid would still be with him now.”
Hugging the bowl to her chest, Lucy asked, “Where is his mother?”
“Who the hell knows?”
She breathed harder, turned to plunk the bowl on the counter and brace her hands flat, as if needing support.
Studying her, Marcus wondered what he’d missed. She looked, well…devastated. That didn’t make any sense, though. For him, yeah, he understood abuse on a very personal level. With the boy, he’d witnessed the effects of it firsthand.
Watching Lucy, seeing the rigid line of her spine and the stiffening in her shoulders and neck, he wondered if she knew something about it, too.
Her voice taut with worry, she guessed, “He’ll go into foster care.”
“Luckily, the kid’s aunt adores him.” Marcus put a hand on her shoulder, gently caressing the clenched muscles there, hoping to soothe her, even though he didn’t understand the problem. “She’s the one who called it in. He’s been staying with her since I arrested the dad, and it looks like that’ll become a permanent situation.”
“She’s good to him?”
That Lucy hadn’t yet relaxed, hadn’t turned to face him or protested that he touched her, told him a lot. Enough to break his heart. “She’s great with him,” he promised softly. “It’s a good fit. He’ll be okay.”
Gradually, her shoulders loosened, and she drew a deep, quiet breath. “That’s good.”
He searched her averted gaze, dread taking over.
“Much as I enjoy your company—”
“—I need time to get the food ready. Today was a bear for me, too.”
Obviously, she wanted a switch in topic. Lucy always listened to others when they had problems, but he’d never known her to complain. It told him a lot that she’d do so now. He’d keep worrying about her experience with abuse or foster care, but he would never pry for answers. So, offering a smile, he kneaded her shoulder again and asked, “You said you took off at six? What happened?” Usually she didn’t leave for work until nearly eight.
Her tone now lighter, she said, “I had inventory to work through, and that always takes me an extra hour or two. Today, the stuff was really heavy. You know, big boxes of clothes that had to be unpacked and hung up or folded onto shelves, so I was already starting to roast. Then the stupid AC broke. It’s so hot out that even leaving the door open and setting up a fan didn’t help.” She gave a benign pat to his hand, then stepped away from the sink—and out of his hold. “I thought I would melt.”
“I hear sugar does that.” Marcus spoke absently, even while frowning over the idea of her wrestling with toobig boxes. At only twenty-three, Lucy managed a large custom print shop that catered to all the local and surrounding communities. She didn’t own the business, but her boss paid her well. She had a strong work ethic, attention to detail, and dedication, and it showed.
“Sugar?” She laughed. “Right now, I’m salty—with sweat. I just want to put the butter out to soften, then grab a shower, bake and finally relax.”
Before he could think better of it, Marcus touched a few strands of silky hair that had escaped her ponytail, tucking them behind her ear and thinking about all the ways he’d like to touch her. “Anything I can do to help?”
Seeming to hold her breath, she stared up at him, eyes heavy, her chest rising, her cheeks warmed. Then she forced a laugh. “Duh. Head home so I can get to it.”
For a second there, he’d had her. “Are you sure, hon?” He saw her eyes widen at the casual endearment. “You just said you had a rough day. I’m happy to lend a hand.”
Flustered, she avoided his gaze. “You’re sweet, but I’ve got a method to my madness, and it doesn’t include two in the kitchen.”
It could include two in the shower, if only she’d jump on board. Better not to say that, though. He’d gotten her thinking about it, and that had to count for something.