Eleven hours down, ten to go.
Dean stared at his menu, but he couldn’t bring the words into focus. Exhaustion weighed down on him like an overturned Humvee. He’d been driving all day. Only driving. How had just sitting in his car kicked his ass so fiercely? Dropping his menu onto the table, he closed his eyes. He needed to eat something before hitting the sack, but damn it, he was so fucking tired. The only thing he wanted was sleep and lots of it.
The old jukebox in the corner switched from one country song to another, and a man began singing about heartbreak and getting drunk on a plane, the latter something Dean wished he was doing right about now. Not the getting drunk part, but the being on a plane. A week ago, his decision to drive to Dallas to visit his kid sister instead of flying had seemed like such a novel idea. With another deployment looming, he’d thought the long drive would do him good. A little solitude to help clear his head. That romanticized notion, however, had lost its charm right about the time he’d hit the Tennessee border.
At this rate, when he finally made it back to Ft. Meade, he’d be too damn spent to engage in his favorite predeployment ritual: a night or two of hot, uncomplicated fucking. The kind of casual sex that kept the loneliness at bay. Some meaningless pleasure to get him through the next nine months. And if needed, a little alcohol to make the coupling seem a little more intimate.
The soft clip-clop, clip-clop
of heeled shoes against the hardwood floor, each step growing louder and louder, announced his waitress’s return. He opened his eyes to find her smiling seductively at him. A pretty slip of a thing, she couldn’t be much more than twenty. If that.
“Have you made up your mind, handsome?” she asked with a flip of her light blonde hair, her voice overflowing with Southern charm.
“Actually, ma’am, I’ve barely looked at the menu.”
“It’s Beth,” she said quickly. “Not ma’am. Never
ma’am. Makes me feel old. Like I’m my mom or something.”
He offered her an apologetic grin. “Sorry, Beth
. Common military courtesies have been drummed into my brain since Basic Training. Using them is just habit.” Especially when he was tired, which was a good thing. When his brain shut down, his training and instinct took over. This had served him well while going through Officer Candidate School and the subsequent Basic Officer Leaders Course and especially
“Basic Training? So you’re in the military, huh?”
“Awesome.” Bending at the waist, she rested her forearms on the table. The position simultaneously showed off a good deal of legs and cleavage. The not so subtle hint told him she’d most likely be up for serving him in many different ways before the night ended. “What are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?”
“Just passing through on my way home and needed a quick bite to eat. What would you suggest?”
“Definitely the cheeseburger. We got a new cook this week, and the way he seasons his meat…mmm. The burgers are just to die for.”
“Sold.” He handed her his menu. “I’ll take one of those to-die-for cheeseburgers, fries with a side of honey mustard, and if you have it, a glass of warm milk with a smidge of honey.”
“A glass of milk? With honey
?” Disbelief toyed with her lips as she hugged the menu to her chest. “Seriously?”
“Seriously. I love milk. Like the commercial says, it does a body good.” He flexed his biceps. He’d done about eighteen billion pushups and chin-ups to get these babies. What was the harm in showing them off a little?
She gave him an appraising, up-and-down glance. “It most certainly has. But with honey? Is that some weird weight-lifting trick or something?”
He forced his smile to stay in place. Warm milk with honey was perhaps one of the most significant aspects of his life. Not the drink itself, but what it represented. A tribute to—and a reminder of—the only man he’d ever loved.
“No, no trick,” he said. “I just used to date someone who drank it, and well, now I’m hooked.”
“Ah. I see.” She drew her index finger along his pinkie. “Well, maybe when my shift’s over, we can find something new for you to get hooked on.” With a wink, she sauntered off, swaying her ass all the way to the kitchen.
Smiling, Dean shook his head. Well then. Beth wasn’t exactly subtle in her flirtations, was she? Her attention flattered him. No point denying it. She just wasn’t his type. She lacked the one crucial element he insisted all his lovers had.
Dean glanced around the restaurant. The Smoky Mountain Diner was a quaint little joint that sat smack-dab in the middle of nowhere. Photos of the surrounding mountains and other local landmarks covered the walls. The place held a rugged, down-home atmosphere that made it a great midtrek pit stop.
An elderly couple sat at the table nearest him. The man, his graying hair sticking out in a very Einsteinesque fashion, was digging in his wallet. The woman across from him wore a polo-style top and a smile. A few tables over, a man and a woman sat with three children. The quintet was laughing, their faces glowing. The youngest, a pretty little girl with brown ringlets, mouthed a french fry. Dark stains tarnished her light pink tank top, and when she caught him watching, she gave him a big toothless grin.
He smiled back, a warm sadness filling his chest. Would he ever have that? A family of his own, a husband, children, maybe even a big house off base. A loving, legal
family. Maybe his sister could even stay with them.
Speaking of Emily, Dean tugged his phone from his pocket. It was still early, but he might as well call her for their nightly chat. With luck, he’d be in bed long before 2100.
How would his sister handle this deployment, especially with her long-time physician, Dr. Greene, retiring in a couple of months? How would Dean? Leaving Emily at the rehab center while he was CONUS—stationed within the contiguous United States—was hard enough. They spoke on the phone practically every night. When they didn’t, she had a tendency to freak out. She’d call him irate and scared out of her mind, worried something had happened to him too. With his upcoming deployment, however, those nightly calls would be few and far between, and that killed him. Emily was the only family he had left. He hated not being able to see her every day, but she was better off where she was.
Someone plunked a mug onto the table, a couple drops of milk sloshing over the rim. Dean paused, his thumb frozen over the Call button. “Thanks,” he responded automatically, looking up and—
No, it couldn’t be…
Dean pushed to his feet, the bones in his legs feeling as if they’d been replaced by cooked pasta. An intense urge to pull the man before him into his arms ambushed him, but the fury painting that familiar face kept Dean’s feet glued to the spot. Actually, fury might be too tame a term to describe the anger transforming his ex-boyfriend’s expression into a series of harsh lines and creases.
Eyes that were normally a cobalt blue took on a dark storminess that transported Dean five years into the past. The date had been March seventh, the day tragedy and one asinine army regulation had forced Dean to walk out of Tyler Bishop’s life.
Guilt slammed Dean square in the chest, a hard, brutal blow as fresh and painful today as ever. Tears pushed against the backs of his eyes. Tears for the love they’d lost, the pain he’d experienced, the pain he’d inflicted
. Tears for the future that might have been if the army had lifted its ban on openly gay soldiers a few years sooner.
A little voice in the back of Dean’s head screamed out a warning, the same gut instinct that had saved his life in combat more than once.
Get the fuck out and don’t look back.
Without a doubt, retreat would be the most prudent course of action. A surge of volatile emotions was the last thing Dean needed this close to deployment. He had to keep his wits about him if he wanted to survive. Distraction could get a soldier killed. He’d seen it happen more than once. So why, then, couldn’t he rip his gaze from his former lover?
Easy. Even seething with anger, Ty was, hands-down, the hottest fucking man on planet Earth. He was a hard-on made manifest. He could make Dean go from flaccid to throbbing in under two heartbeats and with little more than a smile and a crook of the finger. Tonight was no exception.
Ty’s auburn curls and scruffy facial hair gave him a just-rolled-out-of-bed look, something Dean had always loved, especially when Ty had sported it after rolling out of their
bed, smelling of sex, sweat, and vanilla-scented lube.
The other man wore a pair of perfectly tattered jeans and a black T-shirt. The top hugged him almost like a second skin, and the short sleeves revealed a multitude of tattoos that hadn’t been there before. Thick, black abstract lines ran the length of his arms. Did the tats continue to decorate his shoulders and chest? Did they go down his abs too?
Maybe even farther down?
Before Dean could stop it, an erotic picture formed in his mind. An image of the other man’s cock adorned with body art. Ty’s rock-hard erection was irresistible enough on its own merits, but to add tattoos—
Dean cut the thought off before it fully manifested. The damage, however, was already done. Desire swelled inside him like an overinflated balloon. But, honestly, what else did he expect? This was Ty. The first and only man Dean had ever loved, not simply lusted after, although there’d been plenty of lusting too.
Dean tried to speak, but his words got stuck somewhere in the emotional logjam in his throat, which was probably for the best. What did he say to the man he’d once loved more than just about anything else in the world?
How have you been?
You look fantastic.
I tried to find you after Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed.
But nothing was adequate to put into words the emotional tempest stirring inside him. Ty, however, wasn’t at the same loss for words.
“What the fuck are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be off playing soldier or something?”
The anger-filled words blazed through Dean’s chest with the burning heat of a flamethrower and almost dropped him to his knees.
“If you’ve come to get your knife back,” Ty continued, “you’re out of luck. It’s still in my back. You drove the fucking thing in so damn deep the doctors are reluctant to operate.”