Once a Marine
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Discharged under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, former Marine major Cole Hammond is struggling to find a new identity. But PTSD casts a pall on everything, and his hard-nosed, homophobic father can’t even bear to look him in the eye. To top it all off, he’s pretty sure he’s flunking out of law school.
Marc Sullivan is a kind, sensitive romance author-slash-waiter with a thing for men in uniform. Cole’s not wearing his anymore, but there’s no mistaking the warrior Marc meets in the diner one rainy afternoon. Cole’s sexy smile and Carolina drawl prove irresistible, but Marc’s played this game before, and he always loses. Once a Marine, always a Marine, and if there’s one thing Marc knows about such men, it’s that they all leave him in the end. It doesn’t help that Cole’s practically closeted in public, or that he refuses to seek treatment for his PTSD.
But like any good Marine, Cole’s willing to fight for what matters. And like the characters in Marc’s stories, he’s certain that if they try just hard enough, together they can find their own happily ever after.
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The second he walked into the diner, I nearly dropped the stack of plates I was carrying. Six foot three at least, with long, long legs encased in jeans worn almost white across the front of his well-muscled thighs. Dripping wet from the freezing November downpour, he unzipped his rain jacket and pushed back the hood. Oh, holy Christ. Lush lips, strong chin, cheekbones that could slice through a rare steak. Nordic-god blond hair in a military buzz cut that instantly made the crotch of my jeans tight. Good thing I had my apron on. I pushed my glasses up the bridge of my nose and kept staring.
I wasn’t the only one. Terry’s hand froze momentarily over the cash register as our new arrival gave her a quick nod, grabbed the sports section from the front counter, and headed for the nearest empty table. He didn’t seem to notice us both gaping at him, or maybe he just didn’t care. Drop-dead gorgeous guys like him were probably used to it.
“That’s what I call a tall, cool drink of water.” Terry handed her customer his change and shut the register with a bump of her ample hip. “And lucky you—he just sat down in your section. Unless you want to take your break now?” She flashed me a toothy grin.
“Nice try,” I fired back with a wink. I put my armload of dirty dishes in a tub under the counter and grabbed a mug and a pot of coffee before making a beeline back to Mr. Tall-and-Hunky’s table. The shitty weather had scared away most of the usual Sunday morning crowd, so for once I didn’t get waylaid refilling cups.
Tall-and-Hunky glanced up as I approached. He looked about thirty, with nice eyes—pale blue, but not the least bit icy. Smiling, I gestured toward him with the mug. “Hi, I’m Marc. Would you like some coffee?” He nodded. “Did you want some juice this morning as well, or maybe some water?”
“Coffee’s fine, thanks.” For a second I could’ve sworn I detected the soft lilt of a southern accent. And now I definitely recognized the haircut—shaved nearly bare on the back and sides, flat on top. The traditional “high and tight” cut worn by most Marines. Sweet, seedy memories of falling to my knees in the back room of an adult bookstore in Oceanside raced through my brain as I watched him stir raw sugar into his coffee and take his first tentative sip.
Then those big blue eyes locked on mine, jolting me back to the present. “Um, do you need a couple more minutes to make up your mind?”
He snagged a menu and gave it a quick once-over, the side with “Blue Windmill Café” printed on it flipped toward me. “I’ll have two eggs over easy with hash browns and a side of bacon.”
There it was, and no doubt this time—that unmistakable slow-as-honey Carolina drawl. Just like Rob, I realized with a pang, tugging my pad and pen from my apron to scribble down his order. “What kind of toast?”
“You got biscuits?” he asked shyly, one corner of his mouth quirking up.
“Afraid not. How about an English muffin?”
“That’ll do. Thanks.” He took another sip of his coffee and turned his attention back to the sports section.
“Looked like you were having a nice conversation,” Terry commented archly as I came back around the counter and stuck my order in the queue for Fernando. The smell of burnt toast and bacon grease floated forth from the kitchen, punctuated by the clatter of Fernando’s teenage son Pedro none-too-gently loading dirty dishes into the washer. “Did you notice him checking out your butt?”
“Yeah, right.” Six months ago, she might’ve had me going. Terry loved yanking my chain. Good-natured yanking, but still.
“For once I’m not kidding. He looked right at those cute little buns of yours when you turned around.”
I tossed a nonchalant glance in Military Guy’s direction. He had his phone out now, and was punching at its tiny keyboard with mad double-thumb action. It looked like a toy nestled in his huge, long-fingered hands. Oh, dear God. If there was one thing I went crazy for, it was a guy with nice hands.
“Just my luck.” Terry shook her head, brunette ponytail swinging to and fro. “All the hot ones play for your team.”
“I think the jury’s still out on that.”
“Why don’t we put it to the test?” She snapped up a coffee pot from a burner. “Let’s see if he needs a warm-up.”
Of course, crotchety old Mr. Faber had to choose that moment to hobble up to the register to pay his bill. I rang him up while trying to peer over his shoulder to see what Terry was doing.
She could flirt with the best of them, I’d give her that. Hand resting seductively on her cocked hip, she gave Military Guy a big smile and batted her lashes. He smiled back, his gaze lingering on her impressive bust line. Didn’t mean anything one way or the other—hell, I stared at Terry’s tits too, mostly because they seemed to defy gravity. They exchanged words, but I couldn’t hear what either of them said. Finally, she topped off his mug and sashayed back to the counter.
“His mama raised him right,” she announced with a rapturous sigh. “Such lovely manners. He actually called me ma’am!”
I snickered. “Probably because you remind him of his mom.”
“Watch it, buster. I’m only thirty-five.”
According to Fernando, Terry’d just celebrated the sixth anniversary of her thirty-fifth birthday. But since I didn’t want to get kicked in the shin, I figured I’d better not mention it. Besides, my order was up.
I stacked both plates along my left arm like a seasoned greasy-spoon pro, grabbed a bottle of ketchup, and motored back to Military Guy’s table. He folded his paper and sat back, giving me room to set everything down. The plate with the bacon and eggs nearly slipped from my hand when he shrugged out of his slicker. He was wearing a plain black t-shirt underneath. A really tight plain black t-shirt stretched over every hard, smooth muscle in his chest and shoulders, showing off a spectacular set of guns. It was all I could do to keep from drooling.
“A-anything else I can get you?” Coffee? Tea? Me?
“This’ll do for now, thanks.” His right sleeve hiked up when he reached for his fork, revealing a small tattoo of a bulldog with “USMC” emblazoned under it. Growing up in San Diego, I’d seen my fair share of Marine Corps tats. Most of them looked garish and trashy, but this one was actually kind of cute. So was this guy a real Marine, or just a wannabe?
One way to find out. “We don’t get too many devil dogs in this neighborhood. You here to protect Berkeley from the scourge of all us bleeding-heart liberals?”
His smile immediately faded. “I think I’m a little late for that. Besides, I’m not on active duty.”
Ouch. Now I wished I’d kept my mouth shut. “Well, let me know if you need anything else, okay?”
Before long, the rain slowed to a trickle and business started to pick up. Within half an hour, the place was packed, and Terry and I were running our butts off. Pedro even had to come out front to help bus tables and ring up customers. I got so busy I didn’t notice when Military Guy got up to leave. The next time I looked over at his table, he was gone.
Royally bummed, I went to clear off his dirty dishes—and there was his phone, under the discarded sports section he’d been reading. It was one of those pocket-sized prepaid models. People left them here all the time. They were so cheap he’d probably rather buy another one than retrace his steps to find it. Oh well. I’d toss it in the lost and found anyway.
He’d left a generous tip: five bucks on a breakfast that cost less than ten. A kind gesture, especially since I’d forgotten to come back and check on him. Not only damn cute, but a gentleman to boot—and with my luck, probably straight as a steel ruler. Best to put him out of my mind right now. I shoved the phone in my pocket, added his dirty plates to my ever-growing stack, and toted it all back to the front counter.
The sun started poking through the remaining cloud cover by the time I got off shift at three. I headed down the block toward the bus stop, zipping up my jacket against the lingering chill. Typical Bay Area weather—cold, wet, and gloomy from now until March. The air tasted good, though, scrubbed fresh and clean by the rain.
Bus service ran slow on Sundays, so I ducked inside the shelter to wait, burying my hands in my jeans pockets. My fingers closed over something small and plastic. Shit, the Marine’s phone! A twinge of guilt plucked at me as I yanked it from my pocket and flicked it on. What was the harm in finding out his name? It wasn’t like I was planning to stalk him. One quick look, then I’d put the damn thing in the lost and found tomorrow.
Cole Hammond. A good, strong name with a touch of country twang. It suited him. His address was right below. It was only about three blocks north. Huh. Wonder why I’d never seen him in the diner before today?
Ten minutes crawled by, and still no sign of the bus. Fuck it—I might as well walk. Except my apartment lay south while my legs insisted on carrying me in the opposite direction, toward Cole Hammond’s place.
It was your usual depressing gray concrete apartment building on Channing, within easy walking distance of the UC Berkeley campus. I’d lived in one of the residence halls not far from here during my undergrad days. So was this Cole guy a student? He looked a little old to be getting his bachelor’s, but grad school was a possibility. Maybe he was studying for an advanced science or engineering degree on the government’s dime. He certainly seemed better-spoken than the average grunt. Of course, if Uncle Sam was forking out the money to send him here, he was probably an officer.
I found his name on the complex’s directory, then started to waver big-time. This was nuts. What the fuck was I thinking? I should just drop the phone in his mailbox and get out of here before one of the other residents saw me loitering and called the cops. Except it wouldn’t fit in the mailbox—the slats weren’t wide enough. And if I left it on the table in the foyer, it’d end up getting stolen.
I could bring it up to his apartment. Leave it outside his door, knock, then take off before anybody saw me. Like leaving a bag of burning dog shit on someone’s stoop at Halloween, only slightly more considerate. Might as well do it and get it over with. I’d already come this far.
His apartment was on the third floor. I decided to take the stairs instead of the elevator. The place was a labyrinth of hallways, but finally I found the right one. As I rounded the corner, I saw someone else approaching from the other end of the corridor.
Oh, God, it was him!
He was carrying a Whole Foods bag in one arm, a six-pack of beer tucked under the other. Fat Tire, from the look of it. Funny, but I would’ve pegged him as a Bud or Michelob man. Those big blue eyes of his widened the moment he recognized me, and he stopped dead right in the middle of the hallway.
I held up his phone and forced a shaky smile. Didn’t want him thinking I’d shown up to mug him, though the mere idea of that was pretty fucking hilarious. He could probably flatten me with a flick of his pinkie. “You forgot something.”
“Holy shit.” Shoulders relaxing, he set down his groceries and started checking his pockets. Guess he just wanted to make sure. “I didn’t even know it was missing. Thanks, man. I appreciate you goin’ out of your way.”
The drawl was back, even stronger this time. “It was the least I could do after that nice tip you left me.”
“No problem. I waited tables every summer during high school. It’s a tough job.” He jerked his chin toward his apartment. “I was gonna crack open a cold one and watch the game. Wanna join me?”
Nothing like Southern hospitality. I smiled and said, “Sure, why not?” then followed him inside.
It was a one-bedroom unit overlooking a tiny green patch of courtyard and another apartment building across the way. Cramped living room just big enough for a couch, a coffee table, and a small flat-screen TV. Galley-style kitchen. A short hallway on the right-hand side of the living room led—presumably—to the bedroom and bathroom.
The place looked like an army of maids had just swept through, except for a laptop computer sitting open on the coffee table, surrounded by several books and piles of papers. One thick volume had “Contract Law” stamped on its spine in bold silver type.
“Law school, huh? You enrolled at Boalt Hall?”
He looked up from putting his groceries away and nodded. “Yup. Just started this term.”
“How do you like it?”
“It’s okay. A lot harder than I expected, though.” He snagged a couple bottles, twisted them open and brought them over. At his nod, we both sat down, the couch springs creaking under our weight. A little lumpy, but not too uncomfortable for something he’d probably bought at a thrift store. Scooping up the remote, he flicked on the TV. It was on a commercial, so he muted the sound.
“So you’ve been in town since, what?” I asked. “Last August? And today’s the first time you dropped by the diner?”
“I meant to stop in before. I pass the place every day when I’m out running. I don’t have a whole lot of money to spend on restaurants, but today I decided to treat myself and celebrate a belated birthday.”
“Well, happy birthday!” I leaned over to clink bottles, but he put up a hand to stop me. “You don’t want to drink to it?”
“It’s not mine. It’s the USMC’s. Or it was, last week. November 10th.”
Oh, yeah. Rob and all his buddies used to make such a big deal out of it, going around slapping each other on the back and wishing each other happy birthday as if every damn Marine on the planet had been born on the same day.
“You’re not on active duty anymore, but you still celebrate?”
“Just upholding tradition,” he replied with a shrug, then flicked the TV’s sound back on.
Football wasn’t my favorite sport. I didn’t even recognize which teams were playing. After a few minutes, my attention started to wander. I glanced around the room, struck by the starkness of its bare white walls. No diplomas, no citations, no photographs. No reminders of home or family. Seemed a bit odd.
We’d finished our beers by the time the next commercial came on, so he got up to get us a second round.
“Don’t you get bored with nothing to look at except that little garden outside your window?” I asked.
He chuckled. “I don’t have time to get bored. School keeps me hoppin’. ’Sides, I’d rather look at four empty walls than miles and miles of fuckin’ sand.”
“You were in Iraq?”
“Yup. Five tours.” Mouth tightening, he handed me a fresh bottle and sat back down.
Holy shit. I should’ve dropped the subject, but curiosity got the better of me. “In Baghdad?”
“And Fallujah. Both times.”
For a long moment, all I could do was stare. This guy had survived two of the ugliest and most brutal battles of the entire war. Despite my left-leaning politics, I couldn’t help but admire him. “Looks like you made it through in one piece.”
“Relatively speaking.” Up went that cute little quirk of his lips again, then he turned his attention back to the game.
We downed our beer more quickly this time. By the time I reached the bottom of my bottle, I had a sweet buzz going. Cole got back up at the next commercial to fetch us another round. I was about to tell him I’d had enough, but his blue gaze locked on mine as he handed it to me, and the words dried up in my throat.
This time he sat down closer to me—close enough to touch—slumping down and stretching his arm along the back of the couch. I went stiff for a second or two, but then leaned my head back until it rested against his forearm. His toned, well-muscled forearm, dusted with soft, pale hair that felt like silk against the nape of my neck. He glanced over, giving me a quick smile.
What the fuck? Was he sending me signals, or just trying to hang out and relax? He already had my heart racing, but still, I didn’t want to presume. If not for the good sense to know when to turn tail and run, I’d have gotten my lights punched out more than once making moves on guys who claimed to be straight. But Cole hadn’t claimed anything; I’d simply made an assumption. A possibly erroneous assumption. Even so, was it worth the risk to find out?
Another long sip of beer, and my left hand made the decision for me. My breath froze in my lungs as I cupped Cole’s knee and gave it a gentle squeeze. I shut my eyes, half-expecting him to haul off and slug me, or at least push me away, but instead I felt his calloused fingers stroke my cheek, the pad of his thumb worry at my lower lip.
“You got a pretty mouth,” he whispered, beer and arousal lowering his tone to a raspy growl. “Why don’t you use it?”
No way to misinterpret that. I set my beer down, dropped to my knees between his splayed legs and looked up at him, making sure he really meant it. The hot glow in his eyes and the way his breath quickened, the tip of his tongue darting out to wet his lips, told me all I needed to know.
His cock stood straight up under his fly, a hard ridge practically bursting through the zipper. I eased it down gently, surprised to discover blue and white checkered boxers underneath. Every other Marine I’d been with had either worn briefs or tighty-whities. Time spun back, and I could practically feel the sticky floor of a video booth beneath my knees, that first grunt’s big, sweaty paw gripping my neck as he shoved his dick down my throat. Dizzy from the memory and the scent of Cole’s pre-cum, I let my eyes drift closed and leaned forward to suck the tip of his cock between my lips.
God, he tasted good. Salty and bitter, a perfect, luscious mouthful. Almost too big for me to handle, which I should’ve expected—guys his height were usually hung like mules. So I opened wide, sliding down until he hit the back of my throat, then relaxed, breathed deep through my nose, and swallowed.
Cole gasped, digging his hands into the cushions, gave a couple of jerky thrusts and came.
I kept sucking him until he finished, not wanting to miss a single drop. At last I pulled off gently, tucked him back into his boxers and zipped him up. “Short and sweet,” I said with a smile, wiping the corners of my mouth, “but I guess I should take it as a compliment, huh?”
“Um, yeah.” He sat up straight, face bright pink, raking a hand through his hair. His fingers trembled as he scooped up the remote and turned off the TV, even though the game wasn’t over yet. “I’ve got some studying to do, so . . .”
I gaped at him, wondering if I needed to clean the wax out of my ears. “So you’re kicking me out?”
“Look, time just got away from me. I got a shitload of reading I need to catch up on—”
His lips kept moving, but I stopped listening. I’d heard this song before. Now that he’d gotten off, he wanted me gone. I hadn’t thought he was that kind of a guy, but of course he was. They all were. Even after the hell Rob and Tony had put me through, here I was, falling for a hot haircut and a nice set of muscles all over again. How could I be such a fucking idiot?
“Yeah, right,” I snapped, finally cutting him off. “Don’t worry, I get it. I’m going.” I got up, grabbed my jacket, and practically sprinted for the door, half-hoping Cole would come after me.
I’d no sooner stepped from the building’s foyer when it started raining again. I yanked up the hood of my jacket, shoved my hands in my pockets, and headed south, toward my place. Maybe a long walk would help me cool off and feel slightly less cheap and humiliated, but somehow I doubted it.
I loved everything about Once a Marine! [S]uch a beautiful, sweet, and complex love story.
[A] lovely and complicated romance.
The emotion and love between these characters transcends the pages of this story.
[Ms. Grant]'s style is sweet and slow, tasteful and lustful with a touch of heartbreak. She gave me things I missed in my m/m loving. She gave me truth, real issues, real disappointment, real heartache but she gave me a love that was so sweet to watch blossom, so endearing it almost made me cry.
[A] wonderful story!! There are so many great things about [Once a Marine] . . . Since the moment I finished I have recommended this book. . . I hope y’all enjoy it as much as I have.