The craggy ruin of Captain Cooper’s broad, pock-marked face twisted into a grotesque expression that might have been his passing attempt at a smile. Goddamnit, I thought. The man was enjoying my distress.
Coop finished his cigarette and snuffed out the still-smoking end of it between his thumb and forefinger. I winced as his fingers came away black and burned. That had to hurt like hell, I thought.
If the gesture was meant to be a threat, it worked. By the time I summoned the nerve to ask, “What do you mean, you’re out?” I was trembling all over. Of course, that could have had something to do with the fact that it had been exactly fifty-three hours and forty-two minutes since I’d last had a drink, but don’t ever underestimate the self-denial of a borderline alcoholic.
“That,” was all Coop said. I let out a small, irritated sigh. The truth was, Captain Cooper had enough liquor stowed away in his tent to supply several of the small villages that were nestled in the sand dunes around camp. He was playing me. Had to be.
The fact that any kind of alcohol at all was strictly against regs here in the middle of the Iraqi desert didn’t particularly bother either one of us. Few things were sacred in the Corps. There were exceptions to every rule.
This was especially true for men like Cooper, who got a special thrill from cheating the system, and men like me, who happened (or, so I’d been assured by a number of my friends and acquaintances) to be both pretty and popular. I’d never thought much of my looks. I mean, I guess I was okay, if you went for tall, dark, and handsome, but every time I looked in the mirror, I saw my father. That was enough to ruin whatever pleasure I might have gotten from my appearance.
The good captain, for one, didn’t seem to have any problem with my features as I sank to the floor of his tent. I heard him suck in a breath as my knees brushed the sandy desert floor. I flushed as his gaze traveled up and down my body: all 6’ 7” of me. Early on in my time in the service, I’d discovered that there existed a type of officer who was able to achieve a certain sense of—satisfaction—from seeing big men on their knees. I’d learned to use that to my advantage.
“Christ!” Cooper breathed, more or less proving my point. “Look at you.” I had to will myself not to flinch as he reached out to brush an almost-tender hand across my scalp. “Black hair and gray eyes,” he murmured. “Costa, do you have any idea what you do to me?”
I was tempted to reply that the sight of the erection bulging through the thick fabric of Coop’s fatigues, mere inches from my nose, gave me a pretty definite idea of the kinds of things I did to him. But I knew better than to say so. Coop seemed to be having a moment, and I’d be damned before my big mouth cost me a re-up on my supplies, which was what I’d taken to calling the couple of bottles of Jack Daniels that rattled around inside the desk in my office.
Mostly to give myself something to do, I leaned forward and bent to breathe, a little, on the bulge in Cooper’s pants. Cooper’s breath hitched above me, and I decided to throw in a quick, “Please!” for good measure. “I’ll be good,” I said. “I know I got mouthy last time.”
I’d always had what one of the sisters at St. Pius High School had charitably called “a way with words.” Unfortunately, my size only seemed to exacerbate that trait. It didn’t seem to matter that I’d once bottle-fed kittens and currently had a litter of stray puppies stashed away in a back corner of the machine shop. I seemed to threaten people simply by existing, which meant that I could say the damndest things and no one would fight me for it.
“I know I’m not supposed to talk back,” I wheedled. “I’m—”
“Sorry” was on the tip of my tongue, but Cooper wasn’t interested. Almost absentmindedly, he brushed a thumb across my lower lip. Cooper loved my lips. I knew that and wet them with my tongue. I could feel his eyes follow the movement. I licked his thumb and heard him hiss.
“Believe me, Sergeant,” he said. “If I had it, I’d give it to you.”
“You have more liquor on you than anybody this side of the Euphrates!” I exploded. “How could you—”
“I owed a favor,” he said brusquely. He dropped his hand from my mouth, and I knew I’d lost him. “Sorry, Costa. Bar’s closed.”
“Excuse me, Sir—” said a voice near the doorway. The tent flap rustled. A look of raw terror flickered in the black abyss of Cooper’s eyes, fear I knew was mirrored in my own expression. If the wrong person got the right idea, it would mean a one-way ticket to a dishonorable discharge for both of us.
I scrambled to my feet as the all-too-familiar form of Second Lieutenant Haverford stepped into the tent. The LT had been a constant irritant in my life ever since he’d brought his badly beat-up humvee into my shop two weeks ago. He’d waltzed in, acting like he owned the place, and never left.
Haverford had been by almost every day to check up on my progress even though, as a light infantry officer, he shouldn’t have had any part of the tune-up process. The attention rankled. If Haverford had a problem with my work, I wished he’d say so. But as a lowly first sergeant, it wasn’t my place to pick to a fight.
Now that Haverford was looking from me to Cooper and back again, I wished I’d taken advantage of the chance to humor him. My personal favors probably couldn’t have bought his silence (the guy was so squeaky-clean, he could’ve charged into the thick of the action and still come out looking his Sunday best) but a strong relationship with a superior officer could do wonders in situations like these. I bit my lip and waited to see what he would do.
Beside me, I could feel Cooper sizing Haverford up as well. The guy was a bit of a wild card. Haverford couldn’t have been over twenty-five, but he was already on the fast track to make captain. Cold and aloof in person, Haverford was supposed to be utterly ruthless on the battlefield. He had few friends and more influence than he knew what to do with. If my future hadn’t been on the line, it would have been interesting to see how he’d play this out.
His response was to ignore the situation entirely. In fact, his voice was so steady as he said to Cooper, “I’m sorry, Sir, I didn’t realize you had company,” that I almost believed he hadn’t seen anything at all. It was only the way his eyes lingered on me as he spoke that made me think otherwise.
I shivered and looked away. Unlike everyone else who’d ever met them, I didn’t feel unsettled by Haverford’s strange, amber eyes. (Wolf eyes, some called them). Instead, I felt… stripped bare. Naked.
I wasn’t exactly a stranger to being attracted to other men, but few of them had ever made me feel the way Haverford could with a single glance: like a nervous schoolboy with a crush. The first time I’d ever seen him, he’d been leading the men in PT back home. His short crop of mouse-brown hair was damp with perspiration, and I could see the interplay of every muscle in his back beneath the thinning strands of his T-shirt….
The harsh bark of Captain Cooper’s laugh interrupted my fantasy.
“Kid,” he said. “You’re a whiz on the battlefield, but you’ve got a lot to learn about the way things work around here. That’s”—he gestured to me—“not company. That’s a poor excuse for a sergeant who was just about to take his fat ass elsewhere. Weren’t you, Costa?”
I recognized a dismissal when I heard one.
“Sir,” I said, standing. I brought my heels together at attention and hoped my salute met with Haverford’s seal of approval. His eyes were hard on the small of my back as I turned and left the tent.
When I stepped outside, a chilly blast of night air slapped my face. It was a welcome distraction from the heat of the LT’s gaze. I stuffed my hands beneath my armpits and began the long trek back to the shop. It would be good to get a head start on some work. Tomorrow I had a long day ahead of me and no booze to face it on.