Chapter 1

 

SMILING, JOHN hugged his parents and siblings, leaving Chuck for last. When his oldest brother wrapped his arms tight around him and squeezed, John grunted but didn’t argue. As much as John loved his parents, Chuck was the one he turned to when he had problems.

“Remember, figure out if he’s interested before you do anything. No point in ruining everything you worked for by rushing things.” Chuck stepped back and slapped his shoulder. “If you’re going to stay in-country for a while, I might bring Herb down to visit you. I don’t think he’s traveled much.”

“What? I’ve gone all over the world.” Herb, Chuck’s boyfriend, huffed and crossed his arms, glaring at Chuck. “I’m probably more well-traveled than you or your brother.”

“Yeah, but have you seen anything other than the inside of labs or research facilities?” Chuck cupped Herb’s cheek. “Honey, you need to get outside more often.”

John laughed and snagged Herb into a quick hug. “Don’t worry, Herb. I’m sure you’ve seen more of the world than I have. I’ve seen a whole lot of sand lately.”

Herb stood on the tips of his toes and brushed a kiss over John’s cheek. “Any man who doesn’t want you would have to be blind and crazy. If we come down and that man hasn’t snatched you up, I’ll talk to him and see why he hasn’t.”

“Thank you, Herb. I might take you up on your offer.”

He shot his brother a wink, and Chuck rolled his eyes. His flight number was announced over the airport’s loudspeaker.

“I have to go.” He shook Chuck’s hand again. “Keep your eye on Herb, bro. He’s going to keep you on your toes.”

“Each time he tells me he’s going to do an experiment, I break out in hives. I’m never going to get over the last experiment he tried on himself.” Chuck shuddered.

“Hey, I learned my lesson. No more invisibility serums or crap like that. I’ll save those for the top-secret hush-hush agencies.” Herb snuggled close to Chuck. “Besides, I don’t want to upset you anymore, though when I do, the sex is awesome.”

“La-la-la,” John sang, acting like he was plugging his ears. “Just like I don’t want to know that my parents still have sex, I really don’t want to hear about my older brother’s sex life.”

“But—”

Chuck covered Herb’s mouth with his hand. “Call us when you get back to base.”

“I will.”

Chuckling, John went through security and waved to his family before heading toward his gate. Still smiling, he handed his ticket to the lady at the counter and walked onboard. He stowed his bag overhead and took his seat. While the other passengers took their places, John stared out the window and thought about Chuck’s advice.

Should he take the risk of finding out if Heath might be interested? Or should he just continue with his career choice and retire from the Army twenty years from now? Of course, it would be a lonely twenty years, not being able to openly date anyone, but he could do it. It wasn’t like he’d dated anyone since joining the Army when he was eighteen.

Sure, he’d gone on leave to some big cities where he found guys willing to have one-night stands. He’d never looked for anything more than that, but since coming to the Army base and seeing Heath at the Corner Café for the first time, John couldn’t stop thinking about what his life could be like with someone to care about him.

Then coming home and getting to watch Chuck and Herb as they slowly settled into their relationship really brought home how empty his life was. He’d already been doing some thinking about it during his last tour. He envied seeing how happy Chuck was, even when Herb frustrated him. Chuck was truly enjoying life for the first time, and John thought Herb was the best thing to ever happen to Chuck.

John leaned his head back after buckling his seat belt, closing his eyes. He ignored the people around him, while remaining alert to any sort of problem. Being trained as a Spec-Ops soldier gave him heightened senses, but he managed to tone them down when he wasn’t on duty. It wouldn’t pay to freak out over something innocent.

When the plane was in the air, he let the image of Heath Kane pop into his mind. Slender and pretty, Heath was the definition of twink, or at least what John always thought of as twink. Blond curls, dark blue eyes, and an ass John wanted to pinch. Of course, he’d managed to control that urge. First of all, no matter how cute Heath was, he might not be gay. Sure, John had caught the man staring, but that didn’t necessarily mean Heath was gay. Maybe the guy just had something against John personally, or maybe he worried that John would snap from PTSD.

Heath always greeted John with a smile and a cup of coffee as soon as John sat down. Yeah, John had become a regular at the Corner Café, not just because Heath worked there. John didn’t like cooking for himself and living in on-base enlisted quarters meant he could go to the mess hall, but it got boring, going there every day. He could have a house on base or an apartment off base, but he didn’t want to take space away from families who might need it. Also, living on base made it easy when he got recalled in case of an emergency or an incident his unit had to deal with somewhere in the world.

It was easier to go out and have someone else cook his meal. The food tasted wonderful at the café, and the scenery didn’t hurt the eyes. He’d figured out Heath’s usual work schedule and tried to go to the café when the blond worked. After making sure Heath was working, he’d take a seat in Heath’s section.

Okay, so that made it sound like he stalked the man. John hadn’t necessarily gone out of his way to ensure he ate at the café when Heath was there, but he did try to get there at least once a week so he could get his Heath fix.

There were subtle signs of Heath’s interest. The coffee being at John’s table as soon as he sat down. The extra-large slice of pie if John ordered dessert. The hint of flirting when they chatted about their weeks.

“Would you like something to drink, sir?”

John looked at the flight attendant and smiled. “Sure. Just a diet soda, please.”

“Certainly.” She handed him the can and glass. “Would you like some peanuts?”

“Thanks.”

He took his refreshments without disturbing the guy sleeping next to him. All of his stuff on his tray, he tugged out his iPod and stuck his earbuds in before turning it on. He let the music take him away from the flight. John hated flying because he disliked being crammed together with hundreds of strangers. He wasn’t the most outgoing member of his family, so dealing with people tended to be difficult for him. Serving in the Army and being an officer helped him overcome most of his shyness, yet he still didn’t like putting himself out.

He must have fallen asleep because the deceleration of the plane jerked him awake. John put his iPod away and returned his tray to its upright position. He watched the ground approach and felt the slight bump as the wheels touched down. After waiting until everyone else got off, he strolled down the ramp and headed toward the baggage-claim area. There wasn’t any hurry. He still had a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Atlanta to get back to Fort Benning, and he didn’t have to report for work until tomorrow afternoon.

At his truck he tossed his luggage in the back of the cab and slid behind the wheel. John pulled out his phone and dialed his mother’s number.

“Hello.”

“Hi, Mom. I just wanted to let you know I landed, and I’m heading home now.”

“You’re not driving and talking on the phone, are you? You know that’s really dangerous,” his mother warned.

John chuckled. “Don’t worry, Mom. I’m still in the parking garage, and I’ll make sure to put my Bluetooth in before I leave.”

“Good. I’ll let everyone know you made it all right. You’ll call me when you get back to your place, right?”

“I will, Mom. I love you and I’ll talk to you later.”

He hung up and got out the earpiece for his phone. After getting it set up, he started the truck and left the airport, headed toward the base.

When he hit town, it was dinnertime and he decided to stop at the café. He didn’t know whether Heath was working or not, but he was hungry and didn’t feel like hitting the cafeteria on base. He parked and headed inside.

“Hey, John, been a while since we’ve seen you. You haven’t been on temporary duty somewhere, have you?”

Grinning, he greeted the older man sitting at the counter. “Hey, Cooter, how’s it going? I took some leave and headed up to see the family.”

They shook hands, and John continued to what he considered his booth. By the time he got there, Heath had a coffee ready for him. He breathed in deeply as he eased past Heath to sit. Clean sweat and a fresh, musky scent filled his nose. Thank God, the table concealed his erection from Heath.

“It’s good to see you again. I have to admit I was worried when you hadn’t come in for a few days. I’m glad to hear you weren’t overseas.” Heath dipped his head, peering at him through his blond bangs, and gave John a shy smile.

“Thanks, Heath. Next time I leave, I’ll stop by and let you know where I’m going. I don’t want you to worry.” He reached out and touched the top of Heath’s hand with the tips of his fingers.

Heath’s gaze dropped to where their skin joined, and John started to pull back, but Heath quickly covered his hand. They froze, staring at each other for a second before the banging of glasses together broke them apart.

“Thanks. I’d appreciate it. Can I get you the usual?”

“It’s meat loaf night, isn’t it?” John didn’t need to look at a menu. He’d memorized the thing within the first couple of days he’d come to the café.

“It is Sunday.” Heath winked. “Are you going to want a piece of pecan pie? I’ll save you some.”

“Pecan pie? Did you make it?” He took a sip of his coffee to keep from reaching out and grabbing Heath’s hand again.

Heath nodded. “Yeah.”

“Then I’ll have a piece.” John leaned back and sighed. “I’m glad to be back. That drive from the airport is tiring, considering I had a three-hour flight on top of that.”

“I’ve done that trip, and you’re right. It’s tiring. I’ll bring out your dinner when it’s ready.”

“Thanks.”

Heath turned and walked away. John tried not to ogle his ass, but hell, Heath had the prettiest butt John had ever seen. He hoped he had a chance to get up close and personal with that ass soon.