Sink or Swim (Anchor Point, 8)
When need meets fear, can two very different men find common ground?
Alhazar Bukhari spent his Navy career in the closet. Now he’s retired, divorced, and hungry for the love he’s never had a chance to experience. He tries to put his faith in Allah to bring the right man into his life, but it’s hard to be patient after all this time.
Chaplain Dylan Pedersen spends his days counseling Sailors, and his nights with men he doesn’t know. Months after finally escaping an abusive relationship, he’s terrified of anything more than a physical connection. Maybe it’s a sin, but he’s too lonely to not let men into his bed, and too scared to let them into his heart.
When Alhazar’s civilian job brings him aboard the USS Fort Stevens, and his daily prayers bring him into Dylan’s chapel, the chemistry is instantaneous. Sex and friendship quickly evolve into more, but Dylan’s too haunted by his recent past to be the man Alhazar wants. Alhazar needs love, Dylan needs time, and if they can’t find some sort of balance, they’ll sink before they ever have a chance to swim.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:emotional abuse
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Captain Mark Thomas stared at my desk for the longest time, looking for all the world like I’d just asked him to make some critical call in battle. Eyes wide. Teeth digging into his lower lip. Deep crevices across his forehead. In his lap he held his ball cap—the one embroidered with USS Fort Stevens—and he idly thumbed the bill.
Hands folded in my lap, I watched him across my cramped office for a moment. Finally, I said, “You don’t have to decide today.”
He exhaled, rubbing his hand over his face. “I know. And I don’t know why I’m stressing so hard about it.”
I smiled. “Weddings are stressful.”
“Yeah, but I mean . . .” He laughed softly. “We’re already engaged. We’re doing this. It should be downhill from here, right?”
“In theory.” Which was why we’d been sitting here for an hour, sweat beading on his forehead as we went over options for his upcoming wedding. I nudged the thick folder toward him. “Take this home and talk it over with Diego. When you’ve reached a consensus, let me know.”
Mark let out another long breath and nodded as he picked up the folder. “I will. And I should . . .” He looked at his watch and swore, then cringed. “Sorry.”
I chuckled. “I see Sailors all day long. It’ll take more than some cursing to bother me.”
“Well, yeah, but I probably shouldn’t . . . you know.” He gestured at the pale-gray bulkhead separating us from the ship chapel’s sanctuary. “Here.”
“I won’t tell if you won’t.”
That got a laugh out of him, which seemed to loosen some of the tension in his shoulders. He pushed himself up out of the chair, tucked the folder under his arm, and reached across the desk. “Thanks for all of this, Padre.”
I rose too and shook his hand. “Don’t mention it. That’s why I’m here.”
We exchanged smiles, and Mark left. Watching him go, I was still smiling. His wedding was coming up soon, and he was all nerves. Stressing about every detail. Worried sick things wouldn’t go the way we’d planned. His fiancé was as laid-back as could be about the whole thing, so hopefully Diego could talk Mark down this evening. He was good at that.
I sat again and leaned back in my chair, staring at the one the ship’s XO had just vacated. Mark had been in here a lot, especially while we’d been deployed a few months ago. First tying himself in knots over the idea of, well, tying the knot. Then needing reassurance before popping the question (which was probably why Diego had beaten him to it). More recently, wringing his hands over the actual wedding. We’d done some counseling sessions too, and I had no doubt he was genuinely ready and eager to marry Diego. Their relationship was solid, and whenever they’d been in here together, it was obvious they were deeply in love and fully committed to each other. All it took was a shared glance between them—their devotion was visible to the naked eye.
Mark was just worried about logistics, which I’d gently suggested was him projecting his nerves about marriage. After his first marriage had failed so spectacularly, he was—and last week had finally admitted he was—scared to death he’d find a way to torpedo this one.
Shaking my head, I chuckled in the stillness. I didn’t imagine he and Diego had much to worry about in that department. They were both more than willing to put in the work to keep their relationship on the rails, and—
Beyond the tiny room separating my office from the chapel, boots clomped on the deck, coming into the sanctuary from the passageway.
I got up, straightened my green digicam blouse, and headed out to see if the new arrival needed anything. It might’ve been someone coming in to pray or just have a little quiet time alone. Might’ve even been Father Jacobs back early from his meeting, or someone looking for me or him.
I stepped out into the sanctuary.
The new arrival wasn’t Father Jacobs. The man was wearing gray coveralls—the kind a lot of the civilian contractors wore—and had a black backpack slung over his shoulder. I didn’t think I’d seen him before, but that was hardly unusual on a ship with over a thousand people plus contractors.
“Can I help you?”
He jumped when I spoke, then turned around.
And it was my turn to jump.
Whoa. Those eyes.
They were a deep, warm brown, framed by lashes that went on forever beneath gently curving black eyebrows. It was hard to say if his cheekbones really were that prominent or if they stood out because of the heavy stubble darkening his sharp jaw. He obviously worked out, and he had shoulders for days, and he was . . . wow. I wasn’t one to use the word lightly, but even in those coveralls, this man was stunning.
“Uh, hi.” He cleared his throat and brushed a few strands of black hair out of his face, ruffling it just right to let some flecks of silver catch the light. He was definitely a civilian, given the length of his hair—not long enough to tie back, but almost tickling his collar.
Probably long enough to grab and—
I stifled a cough, hoping my face wasn’t coloring as I tamped those thoughts away. “Hi. What can I do for you?”
Adjusting the backpack on his shoulder, he met my gaze with a hint of shyness. “You’re the chaplain?”
I tapped the cross on my lapel as I stepped fully into the sanctuary. “Chaplain Pedersen.” I extended my hand. “You can call me Dylan. Or ‘Chaplain’ is fine.” Chuckling as we shook hands, I added, “Half the ship calls me Padre.” And I was rambling, which was so not like me.
He smiled, and I swore that made the color of his eyes even warmer. “Alhazar.”
“Alhazar?” I asked to make sure I was saying it right.
“Yeah. I, um . . .” Alhazar shifted his weight and glanced at the door. “Listen, I just started working on the ship, and I wondered if . . .” He dropped his gaze for a second. “I’m not all that comfortable doing my daily prayers out . . .” He motioned toward the door. “In the rest of the ship. It was one thing when I had space in a berthing or the shop where I worked, but I don’t live on a ship anymore and my crew doesn’t have a permanent space.”
“So you’d like to use the chapel?”
He looked at me through those long lashes and nodded. “If that’s all right.”
“Of course. We have a number of Muslim Sailors who do the same thing. In fact, Father Jacobs and one of our Muslim Sailors went through on the last deployment and made sure the sanctuary doesn’t have any statues or paintings that might be a problem. Nothing in your line of sight or facing in the direction you’ll be praying, regardless of which way the ship is heading.”
He blinked in surprise. “That’s great. Perfect. And thanks. I didn’t know if, um, being a civilian . . .”
“The chapel’s open to anyone who’s on board. I even have family members in here from time to time.”
“Oh. That’s good to know.” He tapped the backpack strap. “So would it be too much trouble for me to leave my prayer mat here? I don’t really have a place to keep it on the ship.”
“Sure, no problem.” I motioned for him to follow me, and headed into the tiny room between the chapel and the office I shared with Father Jacobs. Over my shoulder, I added, “There’s almost always a chaplain around, but even if we’re not, this part of the office stays unlocked.”
“You’re a lifesaver.”
I faced him, intending to say . . . something. Words evaporated on my tongue, though, because the tiny room was forcing us to stand really close together. Like really close. It was always a bit on the cozy side in here—even more so than in the office—but right now, with this beautiful black-haired man holding my gaze like that, it felt like the tiniest compartment on the entire boat. And that was saying something.
I gulped. “Um.” Air. Words. Professionalism. I coughed into my fist. “If I’m counseling someone in there”—I gestured at the door separating the office from this smaller space—“the hatch will be shut, but this room is always open.” I gestured at some metal shelves behind him. “Feel free to leave it on one of those. No one will mess with it, I promise.”
Alhazar looked in the direction I indicated, and some more tension left his posture and his features. “Great. Thank you.” He opened the backpack and pulled out a tightly rolled green and gold prayer rug. He placed that on a shelf beside a small stack of weathered hymnals, and put a blue leather-bound Qur’an on top of the rug. He dug around in the bag again, and withdrew a strand of black prayer beads—misbaha, I thought they were called—which he set beside the Qur’an.
As he zipped up the bag and slung it over his shoulder again, he turned to me, meeting my eyes. “Thank you. I really appreciate it.”
“Don’t mention it. The chapel’s here for all faiths.”
He gave a quiet huff of half-hearted laughter. “On paper, maybe. In practice, I’d say that depends on the ship. And the chaplain.” He looked at me, brow pinched.
Sighing, I nodded. “I know. I’ve had a lot of discussions with chaplains who don’t welcome Muslims, and with Muslims who don’t feel welcome. It’s . . . an issue. I won’t pretend it isn’t.”
He studied me. “You didn’t even blink when I asked. So you’re . . . You really don’t mind Muslims here.”
“Absolutely not. I don’t have to share someone’s faith to respect it, and I’m here to give anyone who needs it a place to practice.” I shrugged. “I’m also here to counsel, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I turned away Sailors who needed help just because they didn’t believe the same as me.”
Alhazar smiled a little. “That shouldn’t be as unusual as it is.”
“It’s not as bad as it used to be.”
I expected a sarcastic snort, but he nodded. “No, you’re right. During my first enlistment, and especially after 9/11, it wasn’t great. The last few years I was in, though? It was . . . better and worse, I guess? Like some people were still Islamophobes, but others were figuring out we’re just people like them.”
“So you’re former enlisted, then?” That wasn’t really a surprise. Most of the civilian contractors were retired or discharged. And he had said he’d lived in a berthing at some point.
“Yeah. I retired four years ago.”
“Lucky you.” I laughed dryly. “I’ve got another two before I’m eligible to retire.”
“Eh, you’ll miss it more than you think.”
Alhazar shrugged. “It’s weird. I figured I’d retire and never look back. No more deployments. No more being away from my family. No more dealing with all the rank bullshit.” He paused. “Er, the rank . . . stuff.”
I laughed. It would never fail to amuse me how sheepish people got when they swore inside the chapel. Especially Sailors. Or ex-Sailors, as it were.
He went on. “But all the hierarchy stupidity?” He rolled his eyes. “The civilian world’s infested with it too. We just don’t wear ranks.”
“No deployments, though, right?”
“Thankfully, no.” His smile turned my insides to liquid. “My son graduates from high school next year, and I don’t have to worry about missing it.”
“It is. I missed so much of both kids growing up. It’s actually kind of a novelty to be there for things, you know?”
I grimaced. “It shouldn’t be, but such is life in the Navy, right?”
“Yep.” He took his phone out of the hip pocket of his coveralls, and I thought he might be checking the time so he could bow out. Instead, he swiped a couple of times before turning the phone so I could see a photo. “I think I was more excited than he was that I got to be there when he went to his first homecoming dance last fall.”
The pride in his voice and his smile was utterly adorable.
And so were the two kids in the photo. The one on the left was obviously Alhazar’s son. A little lankier, but the same black hair, same dark eyes, and same broad smile.
His date was a skinny blond boy with an equally wide smile that showed off a mouthful of braces. In front of a fireplace covered in framed photos, they stood together, each with an arm slung around the other’s waist and with their joined hands in front of them. The classic kids posing for their parents before heading to a dance photo. I had a couple of those in my own wallet, but was hit with a pang of envy that Alhazar had actually been present when this photo was snapped.
“They’re a cute pair,” I said. “No dad should have to miss that.” But such is the military life. Especially the divorced military life.
“It made up for some of the other things I had to miss.” He glanced down at the phone again, and blushed a little as he pocketed it. “I’m sorry. You probably have things to do besides—”
“No, it’s all right. With as much as I missed of my kids’ lives . . . I get it.”
His eyebrows rose. “How many kids?”
“Three daughters. They live with their mother in San Diego, though. I don’t see them as much as I’d like to.”
“Oh.” Alhazar swallowed. “I’m sorry. That’s . . . that’s really rough.”
I shrugged tightly. “It is what it is. They’ll be here this summer, and we keep in contact as much as possible. You have to wonder how anyone survived deployments before Skype or email.”
“No kidding. That dance picture? My ex-wife was deployed when that was taken. We FaceTimed with her, so she didn’t completely miss it, but it’s not the same, you know?”
“Definitely not. So your ex is in the service too?”
“She retired last year.” He paused like he might add something to that thought, but let it go. “At least we were never deployed at the same time.”
“Thank God for that.”
A subtle smile flickered across his lips, and he glanced at the clock on the wall above our heads. Sighing, he faced me. “I should get back to work before the foreman comes looking for me. Thanks again. For letting me . . .” He motioned toward the rolled-up prayer rug.
“You’re welcome. It was nice meeting you.”
We shook hands again, and Alhazar left, taking with him all the oxygen that had been occupying this small space.
I went around my desk and dropped back into my chair, staring at the doorway with my jaw slack and my heart pounding. I didn’t think I’d ever seen a more attractive man than Alhazar. From the moment I’d laid eyes on him, I’d been enthralled. Then talking to him . . . Lord. He was sweet. A little shy. An obviously devoted father to an openly queer son.
Where were men like him when I was looking for someone to date?
Snatched up by other people, obviously. Though he was apparently divorced. Not that it mattered since odds were he was probably straight.
But men like him existed, which gave me hope.
And after eight long years with a man who’d made me pray for deployments just so I could be away from him and the hell he’d turned our home into?
I needed that hope.
I made it about twenty feet down the narrow corridor before I stopped and glanced back at the chapel.
That hadn’t been how I’d expected my little encounter with the chaplain to go. It wasn’t that I’d anticipated being thrown out or getting a hostile reception; I hadn’t been quite sure they’d let me use the chapel since I was a civilian, but I knew from experience that Muslims were allowed—if sometimes grudgingly—to use it. I’d been nervous because meeting a new chaplain was always a gamble. Most didn’t care, especially in recent years, but I’d met enough who did have an issue with Muslims to be seriously wary.
What I hadn’t met before was a chaplain who made my heart skip like that. Was it wrong to think a chaplain was hot? Because that had been my first thought when I’d laid eyes on him. Maybe it was the camos and the black boots; even after twenty years in the Navy, uniforms absolutely still did it for me. Maybe it was the sandy-blond hair and crystal-blue eyes.
Or maybe I just haven’t been laid in too long.
Except it’s only been a couple of weeks. What the hell?
Shaking my head, I continued down the passageway.
Okay, he was hot. I wasn’t going to deny that. And he’d been nice too. Not in that plastered-on-smile kind of way I’d experienced a few too many times, but really, genuinely nice. Even when I’d shown him the picture. I didn’t usually flash that picture at people I’d just met, but I’d suddenly needed to know how Dylan would respond to it. How he’d react to the photo of my son and his boyfriend.
There’d been a flicker of surprise in his expression, but no horror. No revulsion. No twitch of his lips or faint wrinkle of his nose. If anything, he’d smiled—really smiled—as if he didn’t see any reason at all to be put off. All that minutes after he’d assured me I could store my mat and Qur’an in his office.
Was this real? Had I really found a unicorn of a chaplain who wasn’t an Islamophobe or a homophobe?
Of course I knew they existed. I’d had some good chaplains during my career. Most were willing to let me and the other Muslim Sailors pray in the chapel, though I’d never needed to store my prayer mat and Qur’an there since I’d just keep them in my rack. Since very few people—never mind chaplains—had known I was gay, I’d never experienced homophobia firsthand while I was on active duty, but I’d heard stories from my shipmates. And I’d gotten my fair share from the civilian contractors I worked with now, though they carefully toed the line between getting on my nerves and actual harassment.
So I’d been edgy when I’d walked into the chapel, but now I was off-balance for an entirely different reason.
Those blue eyes were burned into my memory, and his voice—I shivered just thinking about it. Even as I turned to continue down the passageway to work, my mind stayed right there in the chapel. I tried to focus, though, especially since this was my crew’s first day on this ship, and I needed to remember where I was supposed to be. I was pretty sure . . . I was . . . supposed to be . . .
Right. Up one deck and three spaces aft.
At least I could get around without becoming completely disoriented. I’d never been stationed aboard the Fort Stevens while I was on active duty, but I’d spent four years on the Bataan. They were both amphib ships, and their layouts were almost identical.
When I’d been stationed aboard a ship, I’d usually improvised when it came to my salat. If I could find enough room on a relatively clean part of the deck in the shop where I worked, I’d do it there. Sometimes I’d use the floor beside my rack in the berthing. It mostly depended on how much space I could fine, how clean that space was, and how safe it was from people who didn’t like being reminded that there were Muslims among them. There was a scar on my left shoulder that would keep me from ever forgetting that.
With the ship undergoing a moderate overhaul, the chapel was the best place for the time being. Clean, dry, safe, quiet, respectful, and with some elbow room. No ladders in the way or scaffolding to deal with. At least until the chapel became the target of repairs and renovations, which hopefully wouldn’t be for a while.
As I walked down the passageway, power tools whined and clattered. Sheets of plastic swayed over open hatches. Signs warned that protective headgear was required. I’d left mine with my tools, but I wasn’t too worried—the passageway itself wasn’t undergoing any renovations yet.
It would be soon enough, though. Everything on the ship was getting repaired, and the army of civilian contractors had our work cut out for us.
Allegedly, the boat had been overhauled in Bremerton prior to moving its homeport to NAS Adams. Allegedly. Either I’d read the paperwork wrong and the overhaul had happened in 2005, not 2015, or someone had fallen asleep on the job. Or the boat had just taken a hell of a beating on its last cruise. Which was entirely possible. I’d been on a ship years ago that we’d nicknamed the USS Murphy’s Law for everything that had gone wrong on our deployment. Halfway through, my shipmates and I had started taking bets on how much longer she’d keep sailing before we all had to get out and push. That had been funny until around the time rumors had started flying about problems with one of the reactors.
Somehow, that ship had made it home, and somehow, the Fort Stevens had too. In fact it had been sitting here for the last few months waiting for the Navy and the unions to finish with a bunch of red tape and budgeting bullshit. By the time all the paperwork was squared away and the contractors started descending on the boat, it had been a mess. The Fort Stevens was in better shape than that other pile of bolts had been, though, so maybe this really was just the result of a hard cruise.
Well, I was getting paid either way, and it was my job to fix the electrical issues, not wonder who in the world had jury-rigged everything to look like something out of a bad MacGyver episode.
When I reached the hatch I was looking for, I punched the code into the cipher lock, then stepped inside. My crew had taken over an empty space between a couple of Aviation Electronics shops. Before the next deployment, one of the other shops would move in here so they could have a bit more room, but in the meantime, it was ours, and we were using it for meetings and storage.
So yes, I’d sort of bent the truth with the chaplain—my crew did have a designated space. Between the mildew all over the deck and the guys I worked with, though, I wasn’t leaving my prayer mat in there.
Frank huffed when he saw me. “About time, Bukhari.” He tapped his watch. “Nine o’clock means nine o’clock.”
“Sorry. I was dropping off my prayer stuff at the chapel.”
His lips pulled tight. “Oh. Well.” He cleared his throat. “You and Wilson are on the third deck checking out some power sources on the fritz.” He handed me a clipboard with the list of issues for that space. I skimmed over it. No power to some outlets, while others were shorting out. Damaged wiring. The usual.
With the clipboard in one hand, I picked up my toolbox with the other and turned to the apprentice, Kimber Wilson. “You ready?”
“When you are.” She smiled, seeming relieved, and I returned it. Then we headed down the passageway to our assignment for the day.
Her relief wasn’t a surprise. She was our newest team member, and she was almost always assigned to me these days. Early on, a few of the guys had been uneasy about her working alone with me. They’d gotten it in their heads that Muslims hated women—mostly thanks to one of those hysterical bullshit articles about a rape epidemic in Europe because of the influx of Muslim refugees—and our coworkers hadn’t liked her being alone with me. She’d still requested me, though, and in a moment of exasperation, I’d finally asked the rest of the crew if they would be less worried for her safety if they knew I was gay. Now they were uncomfortable working with me and sent her in as the sacrificial lamb instead.
It pissed me off to no end, especially since I was no stranger to Islamophobia, homophobia, or combinations thereof, but twenty years in the Navy had left me with the habit of gritting my teeth and ignoring it. Too many ways it could come back and bite me in the ass if I said something.
That, and when I had considered making waves about it, Kimber had confided in me that she felt more comfortable with me anyway because a few of the guys were . . . less than couth around her. As low as she was on the ladder and as much as she needed this job, she wasn’t ready to rock the proverbial boat. As excruciating as it was to keep my mouth shut, I’d promised I would and that I’d have her back whether or not she took things to our foreman.
And anyway, I liked working with her. She was smart as hell, for one thing. Apparently she’d been working in technical support for a while, and had a degree in computer science. In fact, she’d been about to start a master’s degree when she’d decided she was done dealing with people. Instead of being bitched at incessantly, she wanted to work with her hands, so she’d signed up for a whole different set of courses, and now she was an apprentice electrician. Which still meant being bitched at incessantly, but she seemed happy with the work so far.
The shop where we’d be working today was mostly empty. Dark, too, since we’d shut off the power. In our flashlight beams, I found a pile of wilted water-damaged boxes in a corner beside metal shelves littered with odds and ends. I assumed some kind of electronics work happened in here; there were hookups for the equipment used to calibrate and test various pieces of gear from aircraft. For the moment, though, everything had been removed. I suspected that had to do with the issues Kimber and I were here to fix, not to mention the dripping sound coming from somewhere.
Kimber set her toolbox at her feet and her flashlight on a shelf, and started gathering her hair into a ponytail. “So are they going to let you use the chapel?”
“Yeah. I wasn’t sure they would since I’m not ship’s company, but the chaplain was really great about it.” And really, really— Don’t go there. Not even in your head. He’s a nice guy. Leave it at that.
“Good,” she said. “I can’t imagine trying to do it . . .” She wrinkled her nose as she looked around our shadowy, mildewy surroundings. “Here.”
“Tell me about it.” I paused. “Are you sure you don’t mind me bailing on you for a little while during shift?” I’d had the same arrangement with other people on previous jobs, but there hadn’t been any issue with leaving them on their own. The last job site I’d worked with Kimber had been an office building on-base, and I’d been able to lug my mat and Qur’an around with me and do my salat wherever we’d been working at a given moment. That, and it had been before I’d realized how bad things were getting between her and the other guys.
“It’s fine,” Kimber said. “I promise. I can hold my own for twenty minutes here and there.”
I eyed her in the low light.
“I promise.” She tugged at her ponytail and, apparently satisfied it was in place, lowered her hands. “Keep your radio with you, and I’ll ping you if I have any problems.”
I pursed my lips. I was glad we had some kind of backup, but I didn’t like the fact that she needed it. Still, there wasn’t much that could be done. Prayers or not, we’d still have to be separated from time to time. Restroom breaks. Going back to the crew’s space to grab a forgotten tool. A sick day. Vacation time.
“Relax.” She gave my arm a nudge. “I can handle it, okay?”
“You shouldn’t have to.”
Kimber shrugged. “And you shouldn’t have to babysit me. Look, I promise if it starts getting unbearable, I’ll tell you. But right now, it’s just irritating, you know?”
I pursed my lips. “You’ll tell me?”
“All right.” I sighed. “At least let the record show I don’t like—”
“I know.” She smirked. “I’m going to start calling you Work Dad. You know that, right?”
That brought a chuckle out of me. “I could think of worse things. Okay, let’s get started on this bad boy.”
We pushed our tools closer to a wall panel. I knelt beside it and started undoing the half-rusted bolts that were sort of holding it in place. As I started on the second-to-last one, I said over my shoulder, “Could you make a note that this panel and its bolts are unsat?”
“On it. Corroded or stripped?”
“Both.” Right then, the remaining bolt snapped in two and clattered to the deck by my knee. “Broken too.”
“Lovely,” she grumbled, and started writing. “Is there any space on this boat that isn’t a total train wreck?”
“Not that I’ve seen.” I huffed out an annoyed breath as I started working on the last bolt. Normally a ship needing this much work would be sent into one of the shipyards in Newport News, Bremerton, or San Diego, but they were too backlogged to wedge an amphib in until sometime next year without bumping one of the others down the list, and they had deployments coming up. The problems aboard this can of bolts couldn’t wait that long, though, so here we were.
And we’d be busy for a while. There were electrical problems all over the ship. Structural ones too. Plumbing problems. Black mold. At this rate, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find out there were rabid rats in the mess decks and, while we were at it, mutant mosquitos breeding in the bilge water. It was a floating (barely) shipwreck if I’d ever seen one.
The bolt finally broke free. I pulled the panel off and frowned. No wonder everything was shorting out in here—the wires were a rat’s nest. Quite possibly a literal one since there appeared to be bite marks on the jackets around some of the wires. Not to mention the smell, which heavily implied one of the rats in residence had shuffled off this mortal coil. Great.
Kimber craned her neck to look past me. “Oh my God. How in the . . .”
“I’m guessing rats.”
“Eww. Good thing one of them didn’t fry.”
I grunted. “Don’t count your chickens. It’s entirely possible there’s a crispy rat under all this.”
“Gross.” She laughed, though. Nothing seemed to put her off, and we’d come across some pretty disgusting things on one of our previous jobs. She’d joined the crew during our last week working on the supply ship, and we’d had to rewire an entire men’s berthing—where the enlisted guys slept—and there were few things grosser than what was stashed in nooks and crannies while a boat was underway. I was pretty sure Kimber had been familiar with the concept of a “cruise sock” prior to that job—she was a Navy brat, after all—but I doubted she’d ever actually encountered one.
“Welp, there goes my innocence,” she’d croaked, holding the stiff, crusty thing between her gloved thumb and forefinger before dropping it into a trash bag.
I’d have made some comment about What innocence? but I’d been about ready to dry heave myself, so I’d let it go.
The memory made me chuckle. And it also renewed my worry about her and the rest of the crew. She and I could get pretty crude and vulgar on our own, cracking jokes and taking swipes at each other, and it never bothered her. I’d asked a number of times just to be sure, and she’d insisted it was fine. We knew where each other’s boundaries were. As soon as one of the other guys came in, though, her hackles would go up and she’d stop talking at all, never mind making jokes, which did nothing to pull back the protective dad in me.
One of you cross a line with her while I’m in the room. I dare you.
In the meantime, I just tried my level best to make sure they were never around her without me or Jeff—another electrician she was comfortable around—as a buffer.
Which made me feel guilty about the idea of leaving her alone to go to the chapel. She was physically safe from a job-related injury—no one worked on electrical equipment without someone else there in case they were zapped—but what about from the rest of our crew? Maybe it would be better to do my salat at home after work. It wasn’t ideal, not doing them at the prescribed times of day, but there was some flexibility when circumstances warranted it.
Except going a full shift without taking at least one break for salat always left me scattered and disjointed. I needed it. Always had.
Well, we had union-mandated breaks, and I’d reserve some of those for my visits to the chapel. If things got really bad, I’d hold off on my salat when I couldn’t be absolutely sure Kimber was safe and comfortable. Allah would understand, and I would make it work without neglecting my faith or making my coworker vulnerable.
Or letting myself get too distracted by the insanely hot man in the chapel.
I shivered as his face flickered through my mind, but quickly reminded myself that getting distracted was a good way to get bitten by a live wire. The power to this space had been cut off for safety, but we handled wires the way soldiers handled guns: treat every gun like it was loaded and every wire like it was live. I’d been zapped enough on the job—I was in no hurry to do it again.
So I shook myself, forced my brain to focus on my job, and didn’t think about that gorgeous blond chaplain with those startling blue eyes.
When Bill—Father Jacobs to everyone else—and I walked in from a meeting, three men were in the middle of their morning salat at the front of the chapel, and two women I recognized from Sunday services were praying quietly in a pew. Bill and I had been in midconversation, but halted it so we didn’t interrupt them. We stayed silent until we slipped into the office and shut the door.
By the time I’d come out again a few minutes later, one of the Muslims and both of the women had left. One of the other Muslims was rolling up his rug while the third continued praying.
And I . . . stared.
It wasn’t like it was unusual. A steady trickle of people moved in and out of the chapel throughout the day, and every command I’d ever been assigned to had at least one or two Muslims.
In fact, their routine had become a subtle but consistent backdrop for my own. Those who used the chapel came in at roughly the same times every day. Sometimes one would be on the way in as another was on the way out. Sometimes they all started and finished at the same time. Such was life on a ship—schedules were chaotic, and breaking away for things like salat was challenging.
Those who lived on the ship came in early—at sunrise—and again a little later in the morning. I wasn’t entirely up to speed on the timing of their prayers, only that it went by the position of the sun. More than once I’d be getting sluggish and hungry, and then a couple of my Muslim Sailors would file in, and I’d realize it was lunchtime. It wasn’t unusual to be hitting the wall and feeling tired, and only realize it was well past time to go home when someone came in for an evening prayer.
In a way, they were like a connection to the outside world. A means of tracking the sun across the sky. They were of course a welcome part of the chapel community, but it was only lately that I’d realized just how aware I was of their movements.
I didn’t have to think real hard to figure out what had triggered my sudden awareness. Not when he was the one holding my attention while he went through the motions of his prayers. Unlike the other Muslims, this man’s arrival wasn’t just Oh look, it’s noon or Wow, it’s the end of the day already?
No, for the last couple of days, whenever Alhazar came into the chapel, it was like an alarm clock jingling. Or like when a captain walked into a room and someone barked “Captain on deck!” so everyone would snap to attention. One hint of Alhazar, and I was instantly alert and laser-focused on him.
And right now, he was the one still praying in the chapel.
I couldn’t help staring at him. He was on his knees, eyes closed with his hands upraised, palms in. The strand of black misbaha beads was draped over his right palm, dangling between his thumb and forefinger, and his lips were moving soundlessly.
The serene expression on his face was breathtaking. I hadn’t realized until now how many subtle lines he had around his eyes and the corners of his mouth; when he was this relaxed, those lines were nearly invisible. I caught myself wondering if he looked that peaceful when he was asleep, and quickly slipped back into the office to leave him to his prayers without me standing there thinking un-chaplain-like thoughts.
Except it didn’t help. I was no longer in a place where he might catch me staring like an idiot, so there was that. But concentrating? Not thinking un-chaplain-like thoughts? Yeah right. Just knowing he was here, quietly praying in the sanctuary on the other side of the thick bulkhead, screwed with my head. He’d been coming in here for a few days, and I still couldn’t find my footing.
What is wrong with me?
I shook myself and forced my attention onto Sunday’s half-written sermon. All I had to do was keep my hands and thoughts off Alhazar. That shouldn’t be this difficult.
Except it was. It was almost impossible.
Probably because I was in the same state I’d been in since I’d left my ex-boyfriend five months ago: desperate for a man’s affection. Even if that affection came in the form of feverish, anonymous groping and unemotional sex, it was better than a cold, empty bed. I supposed it was no surprise that when I met a particularly attractive man, I’d latch on and catch myself hoping the interest might be mutual.
And now, every time this attractive man came into the chapel to pray, it was like a jolt of highly inappropriate but impossible to ignore sexual energy. A need to either make a connection with him or see if there were any new options on Grindr. The same way a couple of Muslims coming in for their noon prayer often reminded me it was time to go find something to eat, Alhazar coming in kept reminding me I needed to go find someone to share a bed. I’d done plenty of that over the last few months, but seeing him invariably ignited my need for a man’s touch.
You don’t even know if he’s gay. Or single. Or into you!
And for that matter, even if he did turn out to be gay, single, and interested, he was coming into my chapel to pray. Okay, so my rank didn’t matter since he was a civilian, and he wasn’t part of “my” congregation per se since he adhered to a different religion, but still. Getting involved with him wasn’t a good idea.
A hot one.
A tempting one.
But definitely not a good one.
Would he even be interested in me? A man? A Christian man? Though I supposed our religious differences didn’t even matter. Those would only be an issue if we had an actual relationship, and I was too emotionally screwed up to even think about a relationship anytime soon. Maybe someday, but not now.
No, what I wanted whenever I looked at Alhazar was purely physical. Purely, intensely, irresistibly physical. Just the thought of getting him out of those coveralls, mussing his longish black hair, having his hands all over—
I shook myself and banished the thought.
Pedersen. Come on. Get it together.
Sighing, I rubbed my forehead. Yeah, I was losing my mind. This was not the time or place to be fantasizing about anyone. Besides, even if he was gay, did I really have a shot with Alhazar? I kind of doubted a devoted Muslim was interested in what I had to offer at the moment. I had no idea how he’d feel about dating a Christian, but it was a safe bet he’d take exception to the idea of screwing any guy with no strings attached.
And as a chaplain, I should have taken exception to it too, but I was only human, and I’d just spent eight years being fed the rarest and tiniest rations of physical affection while steadily being emotionally drained. I desperately needed contact—warmth, sex, anything—but didn’t have anything left to invest in an actual connection.
I leaned back in my chair and sighed. I really was a wreck, wasn’t I? What would I tell someone like me who came in for counseling?
Probably something other than “bang your way through town until you don’t hurt anymore.”
Yeah. A wreck didn’t even begin to describe—
Footsteps startled me, and I sat up so fast I cracked my knee against the desk with a loud bang. By the grace of God, I managed to bite down on the Fuck! that almost escaped my lips. I didn’t mind my Sailors cursing in here, but it was somewhat unbecoming of a chaplain.
Alhazar appeared in the doorway, prayer mat under his arm. “You all right?”
“I . . . Yeah. I’m good.” I gingerly rubbed my smarting knee. “That corner gets me every time.”
He grimaced. “All of mankind’s ingenuity, and we still put sharp edges on desks.”
“Right?” I managed to laugh, which helped me breathe, which was definitely something I needed help with given the gorgeous man stealing all the oxygen. “So, um . . .” I thought quickly as I tried to rub the pain out of my knee. “How are the repairs going? On the ship?”
Alhazar huffed out a breath and rolled his eyes. “Slowly. Every space I’ve worked in so far, the wiring is a mess.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Rats again?”
“‘Again’?” Alhazar’s lip curled in disgust. “Tell me this isn’t an ongoing thing.”
“There were some issues on the last deployment, yeah.”
He wrinkled his nose. “Glad I haven’t been assigned to work in the mess decks, then. That’s usually where they hang out.” He sighed, pressing his shoulder into the doorframe, oblivious to the way his hips twisted slightly or the goose bumps that gave me. “Either way, I’ve got my work cut out for me every time I go to check some faulty wiring. If some idiot didn’t rewire it and jack something up, the rats got in and made a mess.” He rolled his eyes. “I think they need to call in an exterminator before an electrician.”
I shuddered. “Please tell me someone’s done something about the rats.”
“Well, the only ones I’ve found have been dead, so . . . maybe?”
His playful smile sent a bolt of electricity through me. “Not a fan?”
“Not particularly, no.” I let go of my throbbing knee and squirmed in my chair, hoping he’d read it as a reaction to the presence of rats on board and not because I couldn’t sit still with him watching me like that. “I mean, I’ll take them over the cockroaches we had in Pensacola, but . . .”
It was his turn to shudder. “Ugh. No thank you. At least I can hear the rats.”
I snorted. “Those roaches were almost big enough to hear too. In fact, I heard something once in the middle of the night and turned on the light. Saw a huge roach dragging an Oreo across the floor.”
Alhazar shivered. “That’s just not right.”
“No kidding. So let’s all be thankful we don’t have that problem on this boat.”
“Seriously.” He paused, wavering a little like he might be thinking about leaving. Something like panic surged through me; why was I suddenly desperate for a topic of conversation so I could to keep him in the room a minute longer? Then he adjusted the rolled-up rug under his arm. “Anyway, the repairs . . . it probably won’t take us more than a few months to wrap it all up. Some spaces only need quick fixes, some need to be rewired completely.” Another pause, and he chuckled. “You know someone got in and attached a LAN cable to a main power line and ran it into one of the men’s berthings? I think they were powering a video game console.”
“I’m not surprised. Never underestimate the ingenuity of bored Sailors on a long deployment.”
Alhazar laughed, flashing straight white teeth and screwing with my pulse again. “I know. I used to be one of them. I’d have sold my soul for an Xbox during some of those long stretches underway.”
“Video games do make a difference.”
“As often as I could. Captain Hawthorne installed one in his stateroom. Wasn’t a ton of space, but we could wedge three or four people in and play for a while.”
An odd smile—an oddly hot one—crossed his lips, and he narrowed his eyes a little. “What did you play?”
“Eh, we rotated a bit. A lot of Call of Duty, and the XO got me hooked on Gears of War.”
Alhazar laughed again. “Wow.”
“What? What did you think I was playing?”
He shook his head. “I wasn’t sure. But I play a lot of Call of Duty, and I know how guys talk when they play it. So I’m suddenly having visions of the ship’s chaplain cursing at campers and cackling over explosions.”
“Yeah, that’s not too far from the truth.” I smirked. “You should hear the CO when he gets killed.”
I nodded. “Father Jacobs put a swear jar in whenever we were playing so we could all cash in on the Skipper’s language.”
Alhazar’s eyebrows shot up. “Wait, both the chaplains played?”
“Of course.” I shrugged. “We were on cruise—we get as bored as everyone else.”
“Huh. Yeah. I guess you would. I never really thought about what the brass did during downtime.”
“Blew shit up and swore at each other, mostly.” I paused. “And apparently I need a swear jar in here.”
He chuckled. “So what happened to the money in the jar?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
Alhazar shook his head.
I laughed. “Next time we were in port, we went to the NEX and bought a new game.”
Our eyes met, and we shared a quiet laugh.
Then he dropped his gaze. “Anyway. I should . . .” He tapped the rug and Qur’an. “Put these away and get back to work. And let you get back to work.”
As if I was doing anything besides thinking about you.
I cleared my throat, praying my face wasn’t as red as it felt. “Yeah, I . . . Sorry to hold you up.”
That smile. Lord.
“It’s all right.” He pushed himself off the doorframe. “I guess I’ll see you when it’s prayer thirty again.”
I chuckled. “See you then.”
Another long look. Another smile.
And then he was gone.
I blew out a breath and slowly rubbed the throb out of my knee as Alhazar’s steps faded down the passageway.
After a moment, I looked down at the words I’d scribbled across half a page.
What was I working on again?