Once Burned (Anchor Point, #6)
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.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:explicit violence
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
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.
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.