Chapter 1

 

 

THE CROWD was intense, loud. There was a charge in the air, an electricity. The whistles, cheers, and claps were overshadowed by the thumping of the large drum kit, a deep bass rhythm that reverberated in the chest, that made the heart beat in time. The whine of the guitar, the flashing of the strobe lights, the mist that hovered high along the ceiling and danced along the lights… it was intoxicating.

Carey Everett was riveted, his eyes locked on the man in the middle of it all. That man stood at a microphone on the elevated stage, his eyes closed, his hands lifted above his head to clap to the beat along with the drums. He was poised with his weight on one hip, a tight black T-shirt riding up with the movements of his arms, revealing a taut, muscled belly with an arrow of dark hair that disappeared into the waistband of low-slung leather pants. He wore leather bracelets on each wrist, and the flashing lights bounced off the metal of his necklace.

The man grasped the microphone, raising it to his mouth as he tipped his head back, the rich timbre of his voice rising as he started to sing, a rough huskiness that wrapped itself around the senses and seduced everyone listening. Carey glanced around, seeing the spell that voice had woven over every man and woman in the room. People swayed and cheered as the song built to a crescendo, the words poignant before the music died away and deafening whistles and whoops erupted.

His encore finished, the man on the stage grinned, bringing his arms up over his head in acknowledgement of his fans, pointing at his drummer and two guitarists so they could share in the applause. The stage lights dimmed, and the singer flashed the hang loose sign at the crowd before disappearing backstage.

Carey sat and nursed his beer, listening to the crowd as they excitedly discussed the concert, the cacophony of voices assaulting him from all sides.

One of the servers appeared at his table, a cute blonde in shorts and a tank top emblazoned with the name of the club on it. She smiled at him flirtatiously, a dimple peeking out.

“Are you Carey?” she shouted over the noise. When he nodded, she leaned closer so he could hear her better.

“Jase said to come on backstage now. I’ll show you where to go.”

Carey stood to follow her, admiring the rear view in the tight white shorts that showed off her long, tanned legs. She led him to a door set to the left of the stage, then grinned, flashing blinding white teeth, before turning to leave. He shouted his thanks after her, and she looked at him over her shoulder, winking.

Backstage was blessedly quiet, and Carey took a few deep breaths before going in search of Jase, his friend, the singer who had just mesmerized the packed audience at the club. A few wrong turns later, he stood in the doorway of a large room full of chattering people. There was more music playing, but at least it was at a tolerable level. A table covered with food sat off to the side, along with tubs full of ice and bottles of water and beer. The after-party was in full swing already, the band members, along with scantily dressed women and a few other men, milling around, drinking, eating, and laughing. Carey searched the room, looking for his friend, a man he’d known for four years now, four years that seemed like a lifetime.

Carey’s memories of Jase were some of the best—and most painful—memories of his life.

The crowd shifted, and Carey caught sight of Jase leaning against the wall, his arm around the shoulders of an attractive blond man. They were laughing, and the blond moved to press against Jase. As Carey watched, Jase drifted his hand down the other man’s side, where it came to rest lightly on his hip. Jase’s eyes were glittering, the adrenaline obviously still pulsing through him from the concert. The blond nuzzled Jase’s neck, holding on to him possessively.

It was a sight Carey had seen many times over the recent years, Jase with his groupies, sometimes a man, sometimes a woman. Gender didn’t matter, and it never had. Carey looked at Jase, taking in the long, lean body, tightly muscled and fit. He was undeniably attractive, with thick brown hair and startling green eyes, an elegant nose lightly dusted with freckles. He had an engaging smile, his top front teeth slightly crooked, giving him a boyish quality.

Jase looked up, catching Carey’s eye and giving him a big grin. He left his groupie and made his way over to Carey, then grabbed him up in a huge rib-crushing hug. Carey laughed, returning the hug, feeling that rush of emotion he always got from being with his closest friend.

“Jesus, you’re a sight for sore eyes!” Jase exclaimed. “Did you make it for the show? I saw you out there but I know you weren’t here for the whole thing.”

“I missed the first set but caught the rest. You were amazing, Jase. The band sounds really good.”

“I think some record label execs might have been here tonight,” Jase said in an exaggerated whisper. “I’m not sure, but I thought I recognized one of the guys in the audience who was at a meet and greet Layla made me go to a few months ago. She’s invited him back here along with the guys he was with, so I’m gonna have to do a little grip and grin.” He grimaced, and Carey smiled at Jase’s use of the old military term that meant mandatory socializing. “Sorry, Carey, I was hoping we could get out of here sooner rather than later.”

“Hey, no worries, man. I’m still tired from the drive, so I’ll just head back to your place if I need to.”

“You can stay through next weekend, right? I was surprised when you said Bill gave you that much time off.”

Carey smiled at the thought of his boss. “Yeah, he and Deb are actually headed to Hawaii for about ten days, so I got out while the gettin’s good. We’re hitting the fundraising circuit hard again when he gets back, so I’m gonna make good use of this time. Beach, drinking, and of course good music.” Carey elbowed Jase lightly in the gut, and Jase pulled him into another impulsive hug.

“Missed you, man.”

Carey squeezed him tight. Jase was the closest thing he had to family, and being with him was like coming home no matter where they each happened to be living.

Suddenly the blond groupie appeared at their sides and reached out for Jase, grabbing his arm, pouting when Jase impatiently shook him off.

“Gotta go work the room, Jayden, and you need to stay out of the way for a little while. Carey, I think Layla and Quinn are over there. Why don’t you go say hi, and I’ll get away from the crowd as soon as I can and come find you.”

“But baby, I thought….” The blond’s whiny voice grated on Carey’s ears, and he lifted his eyebrow at Jase. Jase called over his shoulder impatiently as he moved off in search of possible label execs. “Christ, Jayden, give it a rest! I’ll see you later, yeah?”

The groupie glared at Carey like it was his fault, and Carey gazed impassively back at him until Jayden moved off and leaned against a wall, crossing his arms petulantly as he sulked. Carey wondered what Jase was doing with someone like that, a surprising frisson of anger burning through him. He tried to shrug it off. There wasn’t much Carey could do about it, and like with Jase’s failed marriage a couple of years ago, he was always around to pick up the pieces if needed.

Carey caught sight of Jase’s three bandmates, and a genuine smile broke out over his face as he made his way toward them. The four men had been playing together for the past three years, and slowly but surely they were making a name for themselves on the San Diego band scene. The concert tonight was the biggest venue they had been invited to play so far, and Carey was thrilled for his friends.

Realizing he was hungry, Carey made a detour toward the food and drinks table, perusing the offerings. He’d just popped the top on a bottle of Amstel Light when he felt someone sidle up next to him, and he glanced over to see Jayden looking back at him with barely concealed hostility.

“How do you know Jase?” he demanded. Carey’s first inclination was to tell the guy to fuck off, but he didn’t want to do that to someone who might be important to Jase. Better to err on the side of caution and at least be polite.

“We were in Afghanistan together,” he murmured, taking a sip of his beer.

“Ooh, Jase told me he used to be a medic in the Navy.” Jayden picked up a pretzel and popped it in his mouth. “Were you in the Navy too?”

“No,” Carey replied. “I was a Marine, but Jase was in my unit.” Jayden looked confused, so Carey went on. “See, Marines are focused on combat training, not training medical personnel, and the Marines are actually part of the Department of the Navy. The Navy already has a system in place to train medics, so it makes sense for them to just assign one of them to us.”

“Oh, okay.” Jayden had already lost interest, craning his neck around, obviously looking for Jase. Carey started to turn away, and then Jayden suddenly spoke again.

“I think Jase and I are getting serious, just so you know,” he said archly. “He said I can come to all his shows, and he gave me a backstage pass.”

“Good for you,” Carey muttered, trying to tamp down that feeling of irrational anger again. If Jase was serious with this guy, he would eat his beer bottle. He could see Jayden draw breath to say something else, but then Carey heard his name being called.

“Carey! Carey, oh my God, it is you! Quinn said you’d be here tonight, yay!” Carey set the beer on the table and turned just in time to catch the petite redhead who flung herself at him, and he grabbed her and hugged her tight.

Layla was the wife of Quinn Patterson, Jase’s drummer. She was also the group’s de facto manager, and Carey liked her enormously. She was small but curvy with a mass of red curls, and freckles dotting her nose and shoulders. Tonight she was dressed in a shimmery gold metallic tank top and tight black jeans, and even with her stiletto sandals, she barely reached Carey’s shoulder.

“Hey, hot stuff,” he grinned, setting her back on her feet. “Good to see you too.”

He picked up his beer, turning his back on Jayden and following Layla when she grabbed his hand and led him over to where Quinn slouched on a leather sofa, a plate of food balanced on his knee and his phone to his ear. He nodded at Carey, grinning at his wife as she perched on the arm of the sofa next to him, waving Carey to a chair.

Just then Jase walked by, clapping Carey on the shoulder as he passed. Jayden was suddenly there, intercepting him, planting himself right in Jase’s path.

“Come on, Jase,” he said with a whine. “I drove all the way from IB to be here tonight, and you don’t even seem to care!” Carey wouldn’t have been surprised if Jayden stamped his foot, and he turned slightly incredulous eyes on Jase, wondering why in the world he would put up with this kind of behavior. Jase grimaced and caught Carey’s eye, leaning down to murmur in his ear, “Dude can suck the chrome off a trailer hitch.” Carey snorted, shaking his head in mock disgust.

Jase smirked, then whispered, “Lemme get rid of him. Be back in five.” He gripped Jayden by the biceps of one arm, hustling him out of the room.

“Where’d Jase go?” Quinn asked, ending his phone call and leaning toward Carey to bump knuckles in greeting.

Carey gestured vaguely toward the doorway. “Getting rid of some groupie who wouldn’t leave him alone.”

“Jayden, ugh. He’s getting to be a real pest,” Layla complained. “He’s convinced himself he’s in love with Jase, and Jase is just using him like he does all the rest.”

“Quiet, honey,” Quinn said. “Not our business, remember?”

“I just hate seeing him fuck around with all this trash, and he doesn’t even try to find anyone halfway decent. He’s such a great guy, and I’ve tried who knows how many times to set him up with someone, both male and female. He’s always polite about it, but he’s never interested, and I hate seeing him waste time with these skanks who show up here.”

“No one can be as happy as we are, baby,” Quinn murmured, rolling his eyes discreetly at Carey as Layla leaned over to kiss the top of his head. Carey smiled, knowing how much the big muscular drummer adored his petite wife. He was the only one of the band who was married, and Layla seemed to have made it her mission in life to get the other three settled. They were all good-natured about her attempts, knowing it came from a big heart and a desire to see them happy.

“God, Carey, how long has it been since we saw you last?” Layla asked, leaning against her husband’s shoulder.

“I don’t know, about six months or so? I’ve been really busy at work, and time just gets away from me. Congrats on the long-term gig, by the way. This club is really nice, and it was a good crowd out there.”

“Thanks, man,” said Quinn, leaning up to kiss his wife on the cheek. “Or actually, thanks to this little bulldog. I think the club manager just agreed so that she’d go away and stop bothering him.”

Layla gave Carey an impish smile and a wink. “It helps that I just don’t take no for an answer.” Quinn grabbed her around the waist and pulled her onto his lap, growling something into her ear and making her squeal.

Carey watched them fondly for a moment, but then his gurgling stomach reminded him he still hadn’t eaten anything, and the two beers he’d already had were making him a little light-headed. He pushed to his feet, then staggered and caught himself on the back of the chair he’d been sitting in.

“Whoa. You okay, dude?” Quinn asked with concern, lifting Layla off his lap and half-rising, one arm outstretched as if to steady Carey.

Carey waved him off with a quick smile, saying, “Yeah, I’m fine. Please don’t worry,” he added when he saw Layla’s frown. “I just need to grab a little something to eat. It’s been hours, and I’m feeling the beers.”

He moved toward the refreshment table and filled a small plate with some cheese and crackers and some fruit, snagging a bottle of water to wash it down with. When he retook his seat, he noticed Layla still watching him with a furrowed brow.

“I’m fine, Layla,” Carey said gently.

“But you were limping.” Layla bit her lip and her eyes fell to Carey’s right leg, which he’d stretched out in front of him. “Does it—does it hurt?”

Carey rubbed his thigh, trying not to grimace. “I’m a little stiff from two days of driving, that’s all. It’s really not a big deal.”

Layla moved over to sit on the chair next to him, watching him narrowly as he ate a few crackers topped with cheese.

“It’s amazing. Looking at you no one would ever know that you don’t have a leg.”

Carey was used to Layla’s bluntness, and he smiled. “I have both legs, hot stuff,” he teased. “One is just made of plastic and titanium.” He pulled up his pant leg to show Layla the metal ankle above his athletic shoe.

“You sure it doesn’t hurt? I can have Quinn drive you back over to Jase’s—”

“I’m sure,” Carey said firmly. “Now go work your magic with the label execs and let me finish my snack while I wait for Jase.”

“Come on, honey.” Quinn drew Layla to her feet, then steered her away with his arm around her waist. “He’s a grown man and been taking care of himself for a long time. He don’t need a mama.”

Carey watched them go, warmed by Layla’s concern, knowing it stemmed from genuine affection. He hadn’t had a whole lot of that in his life, not until he met Jase and eventually was drawn into his circle of friends.

Jase. Carey wouldn’t be where he was today if it weren’t for him. Hell, he wouldn’t even be alive today; he would be just another statistic on the battlefields of Afghanistan, another shattered body sent home on a military transport in a coffin draped with a flag.

As Carey absently ate a fistful of grapes, he remembered the first time he’d seen the man who would become his lifesaver… and best friend.

 

 

Four years ago—Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California

 

CAREY STOOD nervously on the parade field, itchy and sweaty in his camo fatigues, trying not to shift from foot to foot. It was his new unit’s first day after officially reporting for duty, and they were all assembled, ready to meet the unit leaders. It was early morning, but the sun was already beating down, adding to the general air of discomfort and nervousness.

As Carey did his best to stand at attention, he heard laughter and a husky voice from somewhere off to the right. No brass was there yet, so Carey dared to turn his head to find the source of the voice. He caught sight of a man, tall and lean, eyes sparkling with humor, making the rounds and introducing himself to the newbies. Finally he got to Carey and stopped, his eyes tracing Carey’s face.

“Hey, kid,” he said at last, sticking his hand out for Carey to shake. “I’m HM1 DeSantis, the unit corpsman.”

“PFC Everett, sir,” Carey mumbled.

“Okay, Everett, you and me are gonna get to know each other real well. Athlete’s foot, jock itch, aches and pains, you come see me day or night, got it? My door’s always open.”

“Yes, sir,” Carey said, feeling shy and strangely tongue-tied. DeSantis clapped him hard on the shoulder and moved on to the next guy, repeating the same spiel.

During the next two months of predeployment workups, Carey barely had time to breathe. Combat training, weapons training, physical training…. It all ran together in one big blur. Carey was surprised to see DeSantis out on the field training right along with the rest of the unit, running combat drills and earning weapons qualifications.

When he asked his sergeant why the medic was training with them, the guy looked at Carey like he was crazy. “How the fuck is he supposed to go out on the battlefield with the unit if he don’t know how to take care of himself out there? You gonna be the one to babysit him? Got any more stupid questions? No? Then get the fuck out of my face, Private!”

One day during an obstacle course run, Carey ran afoul of a piece of barbed wire fencing, receiving a deep, painful cut on his forearm. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he finished the course with blood pouring down his arm, dripping off the ends of his fingers. His sergeant took one look at it and ordered him to “Go see Doc, then get your ass back here on the double.”

Carey found DeSantis, who led him to the command center tent, pulled out his medical bag, gloved up, and examined the wound.

“Gonna need some stitches, Private,” he said. “You ain’t afraid of needles, are ya? I forgot my smelling salts in my other bag.” He looked at Carey with a lazy smirk, green eyes sparkling.

Carey flinched a little at the thought of stitches. “You can do that out here?” he asked skeptically, waving his uninjured arm around the tent. “Don’t I need to go to the clinic for that, see a doctor?”

DeSantis snorted. “Don’t know much, do ya? You think I just hand out Band-Aids and then send you on to someone else, a ‘real’ doc?” It must have been clear from Carey’s expression that was exactly what he’d thought because DeSantis snorted again.

“Doctors are officers, aren’t they? You’re just an enlisted guy like me,” Carey said defensively.

DeSantis raised his eyebrows, his look inscrutable. “I’ve also been through two years of medical training, including combat medicine and trauma care. I’ve already done one tour in the Sandbox, taken care of guys shredded by bullets and IEDs. I think I can handle this.”

While he spoke, he drew up some lidocaine in a syringe and efficiently injected around the wound, numbing it up. Carey shut up then, letting him work, watching as the medic first thoroughly irrigated the wound with saline, then threaded a suture needle and closed the gash with a series of tiny, perfect stitches. He slathered it with antibiotic ointment and bandaged it tightly. It took all of five minutes.

“Come find me in seven days and I’ll take the stitches out. If you have any redness or swelling, see any pus, come back sooner.”

Carey nodded.

“I mean it, Marine. Don’t try to be a tough guy; you don’t fuck around with infection. Got it?”

“Yes, sir,” Carey mumbled, chastened and a little ashamed of the assumptions he’d made.

“Cut out the ‘sir’ bullshit unless there’s an officer around. I’m just Doc, or Jase,” the other man said easily as he packed up the bloody gloves and gauze in a red biohazard bag.

A week later Carey found Jase, presenting him with an arm wrapped in a pristine bandage. The wound was clean and pink, no signs of pus. Jase raised his eyebrows.

“Wow, good hygiene, Marine. Most guys come back and the wound is in almost worse shape than when they got the fucking thing.”

Carey just smiled faintly and shrugged, watching as Jase gracefully snipped the stitches loose with a pair of surgical shears and gently teased them free of Carey’s skin with some tweezers. There was a faint railroad track-looking scar, but other than that, it had healed perfectly.

“Thanks, Doc.”

“That’s what I’m here for,” Jase said with a wink.

 

 

A BURST of laughter from a nearby group of people brought Carey back to the present with a jolt. He stood up to throw his snack trash away, looking at his watch and wondering where Jase was. Carey thought briefly about going to find him and then thought better of it. Jase knew he was here, and he’d be back when he could. Carey grabbed another bottle of water and settled down to wait.