Once Burned (Anchor Point, #6)
This title is #6 of the Anchor Point series.
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Captain Mark Thomas’s world has been tossed on its head: A long overdue but still unexpected divorce. A promotion out of left field. Last-second orders to a ship where careers go to die. As the dust settles in his new home, he barely recognizes his life, but he sure recognizes the loneliness creeping in.
Diego Ramírez wants nothing to do with the military or its men. Not after the Navy burned him both literally and figuratively, costing him his career, his health, and ultimately his green card. Now working illegally in an Anchor Point bar, he keeps the military and its personnel at arm’s length.
But after a single moment of eye contact across the bar, Mark and Diego can’t resist each other. As a one-night stand quickly turns into more, Diego knows he’s playing with fire. Now he can stick around and let things with Mark inevitably fall apart, or he can run like hell and wonder what might have been. One way or another, Diego knows he’s about to get burned. Again.
50% of the author’s royalties from this book will be donated to charities supporting US military veterans who have been deported or are at risk of deportation.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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I looked around the living room of my rental house.
I’m . . . unpacked. Moved in. Done.
Boxes? Gone. Furniture? Arranged. Pictures? Hung. Electronics? Connected.
There was even a sad little bachelor Christmas tree in the corner. It was barely November, but I’d thought the tree might make things less depressing. Now I wasn’t so sure. It was staying, though. At least until the thought of making one more fucking change to this house didn’t make me want to burn the whole place to the ground.
For tonight, everything was done. I was settled in.
Exhaling, I dropped onto the La-Z-Boy recliner. I pressed my elbow into the armrest and stared out the bay window that overlooked the Pacific. The sun was going down, and the ocean sparkled under the changing colors of the sky. The view had been one of the selling points of the house. Very nearly one of the deal breakers too—I had an unobstructed view of the ocean through the bay window, but if I went out on the deck and looked north, I could see more.
NAS Adams was on the other end of town, but since my house was up on a hill, I could see the base from here. The ships, anyway. There was another hill obscuring most of the buildings. The bridges of the largest ships were visible where they were moored to the piers in the man-made harbor. At night, if it was clear enough, I could even see the hull numbers glowing in the distance.
Including the blinding white 9. The USS Fort Stevens. My ship.
That view had almost been enough to make me pass on the house. This was supposed to be my oasis from work, not a place where it lurked right outside. Who the hell wants to look out the window and see their job?
As long as I stayed inside, though, I could watch the sunset and not have to think about all the gunmetal gray in the distance.
I wasn’t even supposed to be here. Not in Oregon. Not on that ship. Not in this house. I was supposed to be on the downhill slide to retirement. Less than three months ago, I’d been getting ready to drop the paperwork to start the year-long retirement process. Come July, after twenty years—twenty-four if you counted my time in ROTC—I would have been done.
Then I’d unexpectedly been promoted to captain, and a call had come in telling me that if I wanted them, there were orders for an executive officer position. If I did want them, I had to agree to them right then and there, and I’d need to report in eight weeks.
Any other time in my career, I might’ve at least hesitated. I’d taken some slam orders before, and they were a headache and a half. Moving across the country on eight weeks’ notice was enough to make anyone go gray.
But the promotion and the call had come within days of my wife serving me divorce papers, so why the hell not? I’d said yes, the orders had gone through, and now I was the XO of the Fort Stevens, an amphib ship that home-ported at NAS Adams. I was moved in to my two-story rental house south of Anchor Point, fully three thousand miles away from everything that had been home for the last ten years. Everything I still owned was unboxed except the gold band I’d worn for almost nineteen years. That tiny box, currently shoved in the back of my sock drawer, would stay sealed for a while.
I was here. I was settled. I was . . .
Restless. What now? I’d forgotten what downtime was.
The last few months had been a blur of upheaval, and now that things were starting to quiet down, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. Since early September, every waking hour—and quite a few of the sleeping ones—had been occupied with the divorce and my new orders. And now that was all more or less finished. The divorce was in the works. My ex-wife was handling the sale of our house in Norfolk. I’d finished checking in aboard the ship a week ago. There really wasn’t much left for me to actually do except show up and do my job. It was all back to business as usual. Same shit, different ship.
So . . . now what?
I drummed my fingers on the armrest of the La-Z-Boy, the tap of fingertips on leather seeming to echo in my otherwise silent living room. Maybe I needed to get out of this house and away from all the things I’d just finished painstakingly arranging. According to the clock on the end table, it was only 1845. Still early yet, and it was a Friday night, so it wasn’t like I had to work tomorrow.
I picked up my phone and googled Anchor Point. A TripAdvisor page came up. That seemed like a decent place to start.
Restaurants. The pier. Some shops. Hotels. A maritime museum. A military museum. Typical tiny touristy town with—
I did a double take.
The High-&-Tight Gay Nightclub.
Oh, now that was an interesting possibility. The clientele would obviously be military, which was risky, but it also seemed to be the only game in town. Admittedly, I was tempted. How many years had it been since I’d touched a man? Not that I’d touched anyone in recent memory, but a man? Long time. I’d been thinking about it since I’d arrived in Oregon too. I had condoms and lube waiting by the bed and everything. Just had to actually connect with someone who’d be interested in using them with me.
Still, I couldn’t help wondering if it was too soon.
Except no. No, it was definitely not too soon. Long overdue if nothing else. The ink was technically still wet on my divorce papers, but Angie and I both agreed our marriage had been over since well before she’d made it official. And now that I thought about it, going to a gay bar and maybe hooking up with a man sounded like the perfect way to break up this sudden monotony.
I saved the address in my phone, then went upstairs to get ready to go.
And I couldn’t help grinning as I undressed to shower.
Because if I played my cards right, I just might get laid tonight.
* * * * * * *
I had second thoughts when I realized just how close the High-&-Tight was to NAS Adams. I’d known it catered to military, and I’d known it was near the base because of the map, but now that I was in the parking lot and could see the chain-link-and-razor-wire fence without squinting . . . Shit. It was really close.
Still in my idling car, gripping the wheel for dear life, I debated bailing. It was risky, going into a place like that. I hadn’t been stationed here long enough to recognize faces, and accidentally hooking up with a junior enlisted guy who turned out to be under my command would be a career ender. I even had to be careful about dancing or flirting. One photo of me with my hand on the wrong man’s ass, and I’d be having an awkward conversation with an admiral.
I released a long breath and let my hands slide off the steering wheel and into my lap. After a moment, I killed the engine. There was no reason to worry about getting nailed for an indiscretion unless I committed one, and I knew how to be discreet. As long as I made sure any guy I planned to hook up with was legal and—if military—not of a rank that would get me in trouble, I was fine. And for that matter, I hadn’t been on the ship long enough for anyone to recognize me, let alone care if they got an incriminating picture of me. If I was going to do this, now was as good a time as any.
So, I went inside.
First things first, I needed a drink, so I moved through the thin crowd to the bar. Most guys were at or around the dance floor, or they were hanging out at tables and booths. A few hovered by the bar, some obviously intending to stay there while others left as soon as they had their drinks. I found a gap and leaned on the bar to wait my turn.
The bartender had his back turned, and he was leaning down to get something from a small fridge, and oh, hello.
I felt myself blush and had no idea why. Two other guys were being conspicuous as fuck about checking out the bartender’s tight, jean-clad ass, so why should I be embarrassed about doing the same?
Before I could think too deeply about it, the bartender stood and turned around, a couple of longnecks between his fingers, and holy crap, he was hot. Like whoa.
While he took care of the men who’d reached the bar ahead of me, I stared at him.
He had . . . not dark skin, but not pasty white like mine. It was November on the Oregon Coast, which had been stubbornly dark and overcast since I’d arrived, and he still looked sun-kissed. I suspected he was one of those guys who only had to step outside on a sunny day and he’d instantly tan to a rich, mouthwatering bronze.
His artfully messy dark hair was just long enough for a few strands to fall over his near-black eyes, and a thin beard lined his sharp jaw and framed his full lips. Not like a flawlessly manicured hipster beard, either. More like several days in a row of “meh, maybe I’ll shave tomorrow.” Why that made my spine tingle, I had no idea, but I didn’t argue with it.
He had a short but deep scar dangerously close to his left eye, the silvery line standing out against his tanned skin, and another that nearly disappeared into his hair at the temple. There had to be a story there, and I decided immediately that I wanted to hear it. Not because I wanted to pry into things that weren’t my business—there was just this sudden intense curiosity about him. He had my full and undivided attention, and I wanted him to do something with it.
He picked that moment to turn to me, stunning dark eyes fixed right on mine. He opened his mouth to speak, but then paused, and if I wasn’t mistaken, gave me a conspicuous once-over. When our eyes met again, he asked, “What can I get you?” He had an accent I thought was . . . Mexican? Something that made his simple question sound lyrical and—
And he was still waiting for me to answer that question.
I cleared my throat. “Uh. Corona. Thanks.”
He shot me a quick, friendly smile—did he blush, or was that my imagination?—and reached under the bar. I busied myself getting out my wallet and finding some cash so I didn’t stare at his long fingers while he popped off the bottle cap. I found the money and glanced up just in time to see him thumb a lime wedge into the mouth of the bottle, and I had no idea why he looked right at me when he did it or why the whole picture made me hot all over.
I paid him and took my drink, and just like that, he was moving on to another customer, and I was standing there with a cold beer and a thumping heart.
I pressed the lime all the way down, then took a deep swallow to cool myself off. The zing of the citrus met my palate, and my mind’s eye showed me the bartender sliding the lime wedge in, and it didn’t matter if something like that should’ve been sexy or not. One look, and I’d gone completely stupid over him. At this rate, if I saw him do something normal, like wiping down the bar or ringing up a tab, I’d probably come in my pants.
Whoa, fuck. I really need to get laid tonight, don’t I?
That was it. Of course it was. I was in a dry spell that had to be measured in months, and recently I’d been too busy with a cross-country move to take advantage of being single, and now my libido was going to get some attention.
I turned my back to the bar and faced the dance floor. That didn’t help. All those gorgeous men in skintight clothes—and in a few cases, without shirts—moving to the beat of an up-tempo pop song I didn’t recognize? Fuck. All they did was make me think of the hot bartender behind me and how much I wanted to see him dance like that.
Without thinking about it, I looked back at him, and . . . yeah. I wanted to see him dance. I wanted to see him naked.
What the hell?
I eyed the Corona in my hand. I was two swigs in and already zeroing in on someone. Damn, I’d expected to come in here and maybe proposition a stranger, but not this fast. Had he spiked my drink with something? Shifting my gaze back to him, I decided that, no, he hadn’t spiked the Corona. He didn’t need to.
I’d come here hoping to find someone reasonably attractive for a roll in the hay. I was surrounded by hot men—I was vaguely aware of a few sexy bodies and gorgeous faces still registering in my peripheral vision—but I was laser focused on him. I’d never experienced that kind of attraction before. I’d done double takes. I’d ogled strangers. I’d moved pretty fast from first sight to first contact. But this? Standing here with just enough self-awareness to keep my mouth from falling open? This was new.
While he put a glass under the tap and filled it with beer, he glanced at me, and the subtle, knowing smirk told me I wasn’t being subtle. I probably should have been embarrassed, getting busted shamelessly checking him out again, but I wasn’t. In fact, the uptick of my pulse had nothing to do with embarrassment. More like an adrenaline rush because he was onto me, he knew I was into him, and he wasn’t giving me a red or yellow light.
Game on, my speeding heart said.
I took another drink of Corona. It didn’t do much to cool me down, but it was something to do.
The bartender continued working, and all the while, he kept stealing glances at me. Whenever he did, an asymmetrical little grin played at his lips and screwed with my equilibrium. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was that made him so different from the rest of the crowd or everyone I’d ever checked out before. I even tried scanning the room to see if my sex-deprived brain would zero in on someone else. Now and then, it did, but one glance back at the gorgeous bartender and I’d forget all about them. I decided it didn’t matter why he stood out. He did, and I wanted him. End of story.
He effortlessly kept up with orders being shouted over the music. One after another, he handed over glasses filled with beer or colorful liquors. He took one order while he made change for the one before it, and craned his neck to hear the next one being shouted while he mixed what I thought was another Long Island Iced Tea.
At one point, he paused to brush some sweat off his forehead with the back of his wrist, but otherwise, he made it all look so easy.
He reached under the bar for some Budweiser bottles, and as he popped off the caps, he tossed his head to get a few damp strands of dark hair out of his face. God, that was sexy. Wasn’t it? Or was I just that wrapped up in him? Fuck if I knew. But I hoped he’d do it again. Or maybe not. I didn’t need to explain to Medical that I’d had a heart attack in a bar because this guy had tossed his hair one too many times.
The crowd waiting for drinks thinned. I hadn’t realized how lightning fast his movements had been until the rush died down and he started mixing and pouring at a more normal pace.
And then, just like that, he was wiping his hands on a towel and coming straight toward me.
Oh shit. Am I supposed to say something? What do I—
“Another round?” He nodded toward the Corona in my hand.
“Um.” I glanced down at the bottle. When had I emptied it? “Sure. Yeah.”
He flashed another one of those knowing grins, then took a Corona from the fridge. Neither of us spoke while he uncapped it and slid a lime wedge into the top. He pushed the bottle toward me, and I paid him, and then . . .
He didn’t move. He glanced to either side, probably making sure no one else was waiting, before looking at me again. “Your first time in here?”
I nodded. “Why? Am I that out of place?”
He laughed. I couldn’t hear it over the music, but I could see the humor play out on his lips and the crinkling corners of his eyes, and it was enough to throw off my balance. Now that we were up close, I could see he wasn’t some twentysomething kid. Not with those subtle lines on his face and flecks of silver in his stubble.
Like he isn’t hot enough already.
Still grinning, he leaned his hands on the bar. “No, you don’t seem out of place. I just haven’t seen you before.” He gestured at the crowd. “Work in a gay bar in a small town, you start recognizing regulars pretty fast.”
“I guess you would.” I chewed the inside of my cheek, heart thumping as I debated how ballsy I should be. Finally—fuck it. I pressed an elbow against the bar. “So if I told you I was new in town, you think you could give me some recommendations about stuff to do?”
He laughed again, still so softly I couldn’t hear it over the music. His dark eyes sparkled as he leaned closer. “That your slick way of keeping me here to talk to you until you can convince me to go home with you?”
Damn, he was good.
“Maybe not as slick as I thought.” I chuckled. “How about a different approach—any way I can talk you into a cup of coffee after you’re off work?” My heart immediately sped up. Shit. I’d been out of the game for so long, I hadn’t expected to be smooth at all, but now I was worried I’d committed some faux pas.
But he smiled, turning my insides to liquid. His voice was almost a purr as he said over the music, “Maybe you can, but you have to answer me something first.”
I mirrored him, leaning in more so I could hear him. So I could almost imagine what his skin smelled like. What it tasted like. Oh God. Trying not to choke on my nerves, breath, spit, ghosts, or whatever else could come along and make me sound like an idiot, I said, “Yeah?”
He slowly ran his tongue along the inside of his bottom lip. “You active duty or retired?”
I blinked. “What makes you think I’m military at all?”
He rolled his eyes, but his tone and his smile were playful. “You think I can’t tell who’s military the second they walk through the front door?”
Well, I couldn’t argue with that. I could spot service members at a glance from a hundred paces. Heart thumping, I said, “Active.”
And I instantly regretted the answer, and even the truth behind it. Irrationally, I regretted my entire profession as the bartender sighed with palpable disappointment.
He shook his head and drew back a bit. “I don’t do military.”
“Not . . . You . . . Really?”
He shrugged apologetically. “Sorry.” He opened his mouth like he was about to speak, but stopped as he glanced to his left. When he turned back to me with an even more apologetic look on his face, he said, “I need to help them.”
Some guys had clustered near the bar and were watching him expectantly, so I stepped back to get out of their way. And to give that hot bartender some space. As much as I wanted to be persistent, what was the point? I knew a rejection when I heard it. He’d said no. Message received. I despised pushiness and wasn’t about to be that way to him.
So while he poured drinks in between throwing a few more glances my way, I headed for the dance floor to search the crowd for someone who might say yes.
But I hoped the bartender would change his mind.
As the guy moved toward the dance floor, he paused for a drink from the Corona bottle. For fuck’s sake. I was here five nights a week watching guys drink from bottles and straws, and I’d seen so many guys sucking face on the dance floor or sucking dick in the bathroom that I barely even noticed anymore. Why the hell was my heart beating faster over his lips around the mouth of that Corona bottle?
And why the fuck did he pick that moment to lick his lips like that?
I jerked my gaze away and focused on my job. Enough ice? Enough clean glasses? Enough garnishes? The bottles in my well—did any of them need refilling? Would any of them look as hot in his mouth as—
What the fuck, Diego?
I shook myself and kept working. On autopilot, I mixed cocktails for some guys who’d obviously been pregaming. They were using the bar to stay upright, laughing at nothing, and could hardly enunciate their drink orders. They weren’t quite to the point where I had to cut them off, but I doubted it would take more than two or three shots to get them there.
They were well on their way to shit-faced, and that worked to my advantage right then because my mind was only half-focused on the . . . whatever it was they’d ordered. Screwdrivers. Right. I reached into the well for the bottle of vodka and, while I did, stole a glance at the guy who’d been chatting me up a second ago.
And caught him watching me.
He quickly returned his attention to the dance floor, and I fought back a smile.
You think you’re so smooth, but I saw you.
Men hit on bartenders all the time. It was nothing new. What better way to get a free drink than to flatter the shit out of the guy pouring it? Except I couldn’t remember the last time someone had looked at me like that. Usually, if a customer was staring at me, I immediately started worrying he was with ICE or something. Not that anyone had ever come in here and asked to see my green card, but that didn’t stop me from being paranoid.
This guy hadn’t pinged me as an ICE agent or anything like that. He’d just . . . looked at me. Like there was no one else in the room.
There were other guys in the room, though, and I could pick out half a dozen who were watching him like he was watching me. The younger customers loved older guys. If a silver fox wandered in here, we’d pretty much start taking bets on how quickly some twentysomething would be tugging him toward the men’s room. All he’d have to do was make eye contact, exchange a few flirty comments, and nod toward the back, and he’d have his dick down someone’s throat in no time.
An image flashed through my mind of that man on his knees with my dick down his throat, and I shivered. And even though I knew it wouldn’t help me focus, I cut my eyes toward him again.
He was a tall white guy, probably my age or maybe a little older. Most of the High-&-Tight’s clientele was midtwenties or so. If I had to guess, I’d have said he was at least in his late thirties. Early forties, actually. Was that why he had my attention? Because he wasn’t a kid like half the guys who came in here?
As he watched the other men dancing, I watched him. He didn’t dress to show off or stand out. An open blue shirt over a snug white T-shirt. Jeans that weren’t tight enough to give away if he dressed to the right or the left. He looked more like a guy who was here to unwind with a drink than someone who wanted some dick before the end of the night.
“Two whiskey sours,” someone called over the music.
I shook myself and turned toward a guy with a military haircut and two swallows tattooed across his bare pecs. Instantly my mood darkened. Always did when I saw someone sporting that familiar ink.
“Two whiskey sours,” I repeated through my teeth, and went to work.
A whiskey sour was easy. I could make it in my sleep.
Well, as long as I didn’t have someone distracting me.
Come on. Focus. Get a fucking grip. Every time I worked here, I was surrounded by good-looking men. I was even hit on by them sometimes. So why the hell was this one screwing with my head enough to make me almost botch a whiskey goddamned sour?
I managed to make the drinks, though, and handed them over. The shirtless man with the swallow tattoos left, and before I moved on to the next customer, I let my gaze drift toward the dance floor again.
There he was. Right where I’d left him.
He picked just that moment to shift his weight, pulling my focus to the way his jeans sat perfectly on his ass. And to the way he stood—straight, shoulders back, but not like he had a stick up his ass. And how hot it would be to bend him over something.
Fuck. It hadn’t even been that long since I’d been laid. Long enough I’d been browsing Grindr before I’d come to work today, but it wasn’t like I hadn’t seen another man’s dick recently. I wasn’t hard up for sex. So why the hell did I want him so bad?
Because I can’t have him. Or at least shouldn’t have him.
I bit my lip as I watched him. I’d turned him down, but I wasn’t going to lie—the guy was tempting. Couple of inches taller than me. Shoulders a man could definitely grab on to for leverage. I was kind of afraid to talk to him because he might let it slip that he was a bottom, and then my self-control would be gone.
I tore my gaze away from him and tried—again—to focus on the next order.
Yeah, he was tempting, but no way. I was not giving in to that temptation. He was military, and I didn’t do military. Which sort of limited my options in a military town, but oh well. It was a deal breaker and that was the end of it.
I let myself steal yet another glance. He had to be an officer. Probably a high-ranking one too. He was old enough he’d been in at least fifteen or twenty years, and the way he carried himself screamed someone with authority. I knew that look. The kind of guy who walked around like he knew he owned the place, so he didn’t have to puff out his chest and strut to make sure everyone else knew it. He had that quiet confidence that made my mouth water.
Why did he have to be military?
Okay, so almost everybody who came in here was. It was a military-themed gay bar outside the fucking base gates in a tiny, isolated town. Who did I expect to show up? The Chicago Bulls?
Plus, if I was honest with myself, the military guys hadn’t always been off-limits. For a while, I’d been fine with them for a one-night stand or the odd semi-regular fuck buddy. I just wouldn’t date them. But after I’d let myself get too close to one, and wound up hurting over him? No more military dudes. And I stuck with that. Usually. My first instinct was always Yeah no, not gonna happen, but once in a while, if he was hot enough . . .
This guy was hot enough, so why the fuck was I hesitating with him? He was sexy. He was obviously interested. So what if he was Navy?
Between drink orders, I watched him getting cozy with another guy on the dance floor, and why the fuck was I jealous? I’d turned him down.
But the way he moved his hips when he danced . . . and that look in his eyes when he was flirting . . . and that flash of pink when he licked his lips . . .
Why was I so obsessed with this man’s mouth?
Because he had full, dick-sucking lips. Because my gut said he knew how to kiss. Because I wanted to know how those straight, almost-perfect teeth felt on my shoulder.
Because I’d slept alone for the last three weeks and I was starting to get stir-crazy and he was fucking sexy so why the hell not?
I sighed. There was another military man who’d made my breath catch like this one had. Somehow I’d kept my shit together and pretended to be a consummate professional instead of a drooling idiot, but two times in my life, I’d met a man’s eyes and nearly stumbled. This guy and my friend Dalton. I’d known immediately they were military, and I’d known immediately that I wanted them.
Dalton and I had barely lasted through the end of my shift before we were blowing each other in the back seat of his car. This hot officer . . . where would we have wound up tonight if I hadn’t been such a coward?
I chewed the inside of my cheek as I watched him dance.
Everything I’d ever had with Dalton—the sex back then and the friendship now—had been worth breaking my rule. Ending our relationship, though? Backing away when I’d realized my heart was in deeper than it should have been?
That was the memory that had me refusing military men. It was why I was resisting the hell out of this new guy.
Except it was also the same memory that had me second-guessing that resistance. For the last few months, I’d been debating where I’d gone wrong with Dalton—by hooking up with him in the first place or by jumping ship when things had started looking serious. Since we’d broken up, I’d been twice as reluctant to get into bed with Navy guys, and twice as likely to regret not getting their phone number the next morning.
I searched the crowd for that hot officer, and found him in a matter of seconds. He’d sidled close to another guy, and they were leaning in to hear each other over the music. Grinning. Laughing. Holding eye contact for way too long.
I gritted my teeth. Jealous. I was fucking jealous because someone was flirting—and getting somewhere—with a man I’d turned down.
The fact that he was military was becoming less and less relevant. He was hot, he was here, and he’d been interested when he was at the bar. Now he was letting his shoulder brush against some jackass who needed to get the fuck out of my club.
I kept an eye on them just because I could. I kept working too, though, because I didn’t want to add “too busy perving on customers” to the list of reasons for Hank to cut me loose. In between mixing drinks and ogling him, I looked over my station to make sure I had everything I needed. Turned out I was running low on ice, so I went into the back. Before I picked up the bucket, though, I stopped to rub the ache out of my knee. Or at least rub out some of the ache. It never stopped hurting completely, and it was always worse in the winter. Being on my feet for hours didn’t help, so it was going to be sore as hell by the end of my shift. Fridays and Saturdays meant the best tips and the worst pain. Always did.
Carrying a bucket of ice didn’t help. I had to grit my teeth the whole way back to my station. Didn’t dare limp either. Soon as I started favoring the bad knee, the good one—well, the less bad one—would start hurting too. I’d ice them both when I got home tonight.
See? He wouldn’t want you anyway.
I shoved that thought aside. It was a stupid habit I’d never shaken since I’d gotten hurt. The scars, the gimp knee—how attractive, right?
In reality, even the younger guys almost never had a problem making do when my shitty knee acted up. They’d just put me on my back and ride me. Would this guy put me on my back and ride me?
I shivered and almost dropped the bucket of ice. I was losing it tonight, wasn’t I?
And I’d lose my job if I didn’t pull my shit together.
At my station, I dumped the ice into the bin and got back to work.
A dozen or so drinks later, just when I’d started getting my head together, the hot guy appeared at my station again, a grin on his lips and an empty Corona in his hand. With a playful upward flick of his eyebrows, he held up the bottle. “Any chance I can bug you for another one?”
“Not bugging me.” I reached under the bar. “It’s my job.”
As he looked through his wallet, I noticed there was a distinctive tan line on his left ring finger.
Well that changed the rules a bit.
Either he was married, in which case he was off-limits even if he was a civilian without a gag reflex, or he was divorced. Recently divorced. On the rebound.
I didn’t do rebound relationships, but rebound sex? Me gusta.
Oh, fuck the military. I wanted him. I wanted to know what sounds he made when I had his bottom lip between my teeth, and I wanted to know if nails up his back at just the right moment would make him come, and . . . and if I kept going with that train of thought, I was going to have a very uncomfortable hard-on.
Screw it. I needed to un-reject him. I’d deal with him being military later. Right now, I just wanted him.
Except there was that tan line on his finger, and I needed to know how often he covered it up before this went any further. While I popped the cap off his drink, I nodded at his hand. “Where’s your ring?”
He looked down, then back at me. “In a drawer in my dresser.” He inclined his head a little. “I just got divorced, if that’s what you’re asking.”
I fought a grin. Jackpot. “Sorry to hear it.” I handed him the drink. When he pushed a ten across the bar, I waved it away. “This one’s on the house.”
He blinked. “Really?”
“Well, on one condition.” I winked and grabbed a pen from under the bar. I quickly scrawled my number on a napkin, then put that beside his Corona. “The beer’s free as long as you take this.”
“What is—” He picked it up. “Is this your number?”
“Only one way to find out.” I grinned and hoped my nerves weren’t showing.
He blinked. “I thought you weren’t into military men.”
I was as conspicuous as possible about looking him up and down. When our eyes met again, I said, “I feel like breaking that rule tonight.”
His lips parted, and I thought he shivered. “Oh yeah?”
He glanced at the number, then back at me. “So, if I put this in my phone, what name should I put it under?”
He took out his phone, entered my name and number, then slipped both the phone and napkin into his pocket. He was grinning when he looked at me again. “Got it.” Extending his hand across the bar, he added, “I’m Mark, by the way.”
“Mark,” I said as I shook his hand, like I needed to commit his name to memory. “So, Mark . . . I’m not off until after closing, but if you want to hang around . . .” I fought the urge to gulp nervously. As long as one of us thought I was calm and cool, we were good. “The after-party might be worth the wait.”
His eyes lit up. Dios mío, he was pretty. Way too pretty for me to be getting anywhere near since he was a military guy, but I’d already asked, and he was already saying, “Yeah. Sure.”
“You won’t get bored hanging out here?”
He smiled, and his gaze slid up and down my body. “No. I don’t think getting bored will be a problem.”
Diego and I couldn’t make much conversation after that. The club was too loud and he was too busy. So, we kept it to flirtatious glances and suggestive comments. That was fine by me. I knew everything I needed to know—he was either gay or bi, he was into me, and he was game to hook up after closing.
At last call, we exchanged one last sultry look—holy fuck, those eyes—and I left. He’d asked me to wait for him at a diner around the corner, and it only took a minute to find the place. The night was getting seriously fucking cold, and I wanted us to be able to make a quick escape when he caught up with me, but I’d also had a few drinks in pretty rapid succession, so I walked the block or so to the diner.
A handwritten sign on the diner’s door confirmed they were open twenty-four hours, so I went inside. Sleigh bells jingled so loud they could probably be heard from the base, and a waitress with dark circles under her eyes smiled sleepily.
“Just one?” she asked.
“Uh, no. Two. I’m waiting for someone.” Right then, I noticed the sign that said they wouldn’t seat people until the whole party had arrived. “Oh. I can wait if—”
“It’s okay. We ain’t all that busy this time of night.” She pulled two ragged laminated menus from the pocket beside the register and nodded sharply for me to follow her.
I didn’t know if we even needed menus. From the way Diego and I had been looking at each other, dinner or coffee or dessert didn’t seem like necessary steps. That or I was just itching to get him into my bed.
This was his idea, though, and that was after he’d turned me down once. God knew what had changed his mind or how long we’d end up staying here. I wasn’t looking a gift horse in the mouth.
I skimmed over the menu and ordered a Mountain Dew. A little caffeine for the road wouldn’t hurt. I also ordered a piece of cake I didn’t really want just so I’d have something to soak up the alcohol. I was mostly sober by now, but if I was going to drive, I couldn’t be too careful.
While I sipped my soda and nibbled the slab of carrot cake, I looked around the diner. It was a charming little place. That seemed to be the MO of Anchor Point—the “seaside small town” charm was everywhere. This restaurant in particular had a sailboat theme, and I had to give them credit for not being over the top about it. There were some framed paintings on the walls along with some shadowboxes containing various knots. The single cash register was behind an old brass helm someone must polish regularly since I couldn’t see a hint of tarnish.
Maybe it was too soon to decide, but . . . I liked this place. Not just the diner either. I liked Anchor Pont. Time would tell if the small-town charm wore off and got annoying, but for tonight, I liked it. If there was a place in this world where I could make a fresh start after my divorce, this was it. The town was tiny, quiet, and on the opposite coast from Norfolk. Perfect.
Anchor Point even seemed cleaner, though it was entirely possible I just hadn’t focused long enough to see the dirt. Sort of like how a cheap motel could seem perfectly immaculate and respectable, but once the sex was over and the smoke started clearing, it was hard to miss how the wallpaper was curling at the seams and yellowing along the uneven molding. The peeling laminate of the nightstand would let the particle board show through, and the uneven shadows on the ceiling would give away the dust that had been building in the light fixtures for God knew how long. And suddenly I’d realize I was lying in a seedy room with someone I never should have fucked.
Well shit. That train of thought had derailed in a hurry.
I shook myself and took another bite of the carrot cake. Yeah, this town was a good place for the new start I desperately needed.
Sighing, I stared out the window at the neat row of buildings across the street. A couple of shops and a dry cleaner, maybe. The signs were hard to read now that the whole town had rolled up its streets and gone dark for the night.
I’d made a lot of mistakes in my past life, and I’d make more in my new one. At least adultery wouldn’t be one of them this time. I glanced down at my hand and wondered when I’d started thumbing the groove my wedding band had left. Then I looked out the window again.
Even if Anchor Point eventually showed its yellowing edges and dusty fixtures, it was a new start. A chance to get the future right after doing such a number on my past.
My ex-wife had fucked up too, and in a lot of the same ways, and we’d forgiven each other. I wondered if she’d forgiven herself. Next time I talked to her, maybe I’d ask. And if she said yes, maybe she’d tell me how.
Clanging sleigh bells jarred me out of my thoughts, and I looked up just in time to see Diego stride through the front door. He gave me a quick grin, then paused to say something to the waitress. Ordering a Coke, I thought.
While he did that, I looked him up and down. Overhead fluorescents never did anyone any favors, but they were hardly detracting from the hot man I’d met under the bar’s dim lights.
He’d changed into a skintight black T-shirt and was huddled in a deep-brown leather jacket that had obviously seen better days. The hint of pink in his cheeks could have been from the cold outside or some lingering flush from a hot shower. Since his hair was damp and more carefully arranged than before, I assumed it was the latter.
Now he was heading this way, and I was so caught up in ogling him, he was halfway across the restaurant before I noticed he was walking with a limp.
Alarm made me sit up straighter. “You all right?”
He waved a hand, some more color blooming in his cheeks as he slid in across from me. His shoulder moved as he—I assumed—rubbed his knee under the table. “Sore. Been standing too long.”
Oh, that made sense. The thought of standing behind a bar for hours on end made my whole body ache with sympathy.
“Sorry I took so long.” He smiled, and it was sheepish, but somehow still wolfish at the same time. “I wanted to grab a shower.”
“There’s a shower at the bar?”
“Oh yeah.” He waved his hand like that was a perfectly normal thing. “I thought it was weird too until the first time someone puked on me.”
I almost gagged just thinking about it. “Lovely.”
“Part of the job,” he said with a shrug.
Well, if bartending had ever been on my list of potential postretirement jobs, it wasn’t anymore.
Pushing that thought out of my mind, I played with my straw as I watched him from across the shining white table. “So, are we eating something? Or . . .?”
Diego’s grin made me weak. “No. I just didn’t think you’d want to wait outside in the cold while I finished up at work. Besides”—he gestured at my plate—“looks like you beat me to it.”
I shrugged, pushing the crumb-covered plate aside. “Just trying to sober up.”
“You didn’t seem that drunk.”
“No, but I like to have every advantage I can if I’m going to take someone to bed.”
His eyebrows flicked up, but I couldn’t imagine he was more surprised than I was by what I’d said. Or by the fact that we were even here, especially after how things had started tonight.
After the waitress had come by with a soda for him, and we were alone again, I cleared my throat. “So can I ask something personal?”
I hesitated, not sure if I should remind him why he’d rejected me at first tonight, but the curiosity really was getting to me. “What’s the deal with the military?”
He didn’t seem surprised by the question. As he spoke, he closed his hands around his glass. “The Navy fucked me. I’ve been known to hook up with military guys, but very, very rarely.” He laughed bitterly. “I sure as shit don’t date military, and it’ll be a cold day in hell before I’m someone’s dependent.” He spat the last word.
I raised my eyebrows. “Oh.” I wasn’t sure what to say.
Diego shifted in his seat, staring into his soda. “To be honest, I usually won’t even hook up with someone who isn’t a civilian, but tonight . . .” A cautious smile tugged at his full lips. “What can I say? No matter how many times I told myself to keep my hands off because you’re military, I just don’t want to.”
I gulped. “So, you’re not interested in dating me because I’m military, but you’re interested in sleeping with me?”
His smile made my skin tingle. “Nothing personal.” The tip of his tongue darted across his lower lip. “As soon as I said no, I was kicking myself. So when I got another chance, I decided I didn’t want you to get away.”
I studied him for a moment before I laughed softly and shook my head. “I almost feel like I should be offended, but I’m not exactly diving headlong into dating myself. If the only thing we’re going to do is fuck”—I gave him what I hoped came across as an appreciative look—“you won’t hear me bitching.”
Diego’s smile broadened. “So we’re on the same page, yeah?”
“If that page ends with us naked?” I nodded. “Definitely.”
“Then maybe we should get the hell out of here.”
Oh fuck yes.
I nodded with more enthusiasm than I probably should have, but I was beyond trying to play it cool.
Without another word, we got up. I paid at the register, and we headed outside in silence.
This was hands down the weirdest path I’d ever taken from meeting to sleeping together, but at this point, I wasn’t going to argue. He could’ve pitched a November skinny dip in the Pacific, and I’d have gone along with it as long as—once our balls came back down—we wound up in bed.
As we walked through the diner’s mostly empty parking lot, the wind off the Pacific made the night even colder. Now we definitely needed to get someplace else.
“So.” I tried not to let my teeth chatter. “Your place or mine?”
“Yours is probably much nicer than mine. Unless you live on base?”
I shook my head. “No. I’ve done my time in base housing.”
“Perfect.” Diego halted, so I did too. His eyes narrowed in a way that nearly canceled out the cold. “But before we do, maybe we should make sure we’re . . . compatible?”
I gulped, suddenly having visions of Anchor Point PD explaining to base security and my CO what they’d caught me doing in the diner’s parking lot. “What do you have in mind?”
He didn’t say a word. He closed the space between us to a sliver, and his hand slid over my hip, the contact making my pulse surge. Before I’d even adjusted to the presence of his hand, it had snaked around to the small of my back, and that sliver between us was gone, and—
Diego kissed me.
I’d expected something fierce and demanding, messy and suggestive, but he was soft and gentle. Not passive or uncertain, but gentle. Almost sweet.
Everything around us had gone quiet. Much quieter than a small town at three in the morning. Like it was all just . . . gone. I couldn’t even feel the cold wind at all anymore; one touch of his mouth, and I was instantly hot all over, my whole body responding to his languid kiss.
I moaned against his lips as I wrapped my arms around him. Good thing, too, because he started teasing my lips apart with his tongue, and as he deepened the kiss, my knees liquefied. If I hadn’t been holding him this close, God knew if I’d have been able to stay standing at all.
It had been longer than I could remember since someone had kissed me like they wanted me, and I didn’t think my foundation had ever been rattled this hard by a simple kiss. It wasn’t that I was instantly in love with him or anything insane like that. Maybe I was just thrown off because I hadn’t realized how badly I needed to be touched, or because he’d seemed like someone I didn’t have a chance with, or he was really just that talented with his lips and tongue. I didn’t know. I just knew I liked it. A lot.
His long fingers carded through my hair as his body radiated heat through our clothes. I thought my heart might go right through my ribs.
So this is what chemistry tastes like.
Diego broke the kiss as gently as he’d started it, and when our eyes met in the lazy light of the all-night diner, his were on fire. He’d been so controlled from the start, but now he was out of breath, gazing at me with wide, gleaming eyes. “Should we get out of here?”
“Yes, we should.”
Witt doesn’t stint on characterization or red-hot love scenes, making this a memorable tour de force.