I expected to have a lot of feelings on my first day in the NAS Adams training department. For one, I was nervous while I paced in the parking lot outside the admin building. That wasn’t a surprise, but it wasn’t all new-job nerves.
Oh, there were plenty of those. Gazing up at the utilitarian three-story building, I had to swallow hard to keep my stomach where it belonged. My last job had ended in disaster. I was lucky there’d been someone here to put in a good word for me and help me get this new gig, and he’d reminded me half a dozen times that if I fucked this one up, it would get me blacklisted from any future civilian contractor jobs. With as many bridges as I’d burned in the last few years, that wasn’t a chance I could afford to take.
I tugged at my tie and wondered if it was really that tight, or if I was just that anxious. My mom had always told me to dress to impress, so I had. She’d also said to eat a good breakfast before I started a new job, but I’d ignored that advice this morning. That was the only reason I wasn’t heaving into one of the concrete planters between the parking lot and the building.
Eyes closed, I took a few deep breaths. I had this. I’d pulled my shit together, and I was done fucking up. Almost getting busted for DUI had been a wake-up call. Almost getting evicted had been the cosmic slap in the face I’d needed. Almost losing everything had been as close to rock bottom as I’d needed to get. I wasn’t going back there. I was six-months clean and counting down the days to seven. I was even diligently going to the gym and my therapist on a regular basis. I had this.
The tinted-glass front door opened, catching the morning sunlight, and my stomach somersaulted. Then, out stepped the other reason I was nervous as fuck.
Wow. He looked amazing. He was still as fit and hot as always, and the green digicam uniform and laced-up black boots were sexy as hell. Even though I’d seen him quite a bit recently, it still blew my mind how good happy and in love looked on that man.
“Morning.” Clint smiled. “Ready?”
“Yeah.” Am I sure I don’t need to puke into one of the planters? “I’m ready.”
He gave my arm a firm squeeze. “Hey. You’ve got this, all right?”
I nodded as my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. It was impossible to look at Clint without a mix of regret, gratitude, and shame in the pit of my already-churning gut. I’d thought it would get better after that first conversation. The one where I’d poured my heart out and apologized for being such a colossal—and drunk—dick while we’d dated a couple of years ago. But things hadn’t changed. In fact, he’d not only forgiven me, he’d also hooked me up with a job, which just made me feel a million times worse for the way I’d treated him.
I shook myself. “Sorry. So, um . . .” I cleared my throat. “Let’s do this?”
He gave me another smile and nodded toward the building. “They just put in cipher locks, or I’d have had you meet me inside. Diego will get you your code.” He stopped at the door and punched a six-digit code into the silver keys, and the lock snapped loudly. Then he pulled open the door and waved me inside. As he did, the light caught on his wedding ring. I pretended not to notice.
Queasy with way too many feelings, I went inside.
Clint led me up the stairs. “They’re remodeling the building and shuffling everyone around, so we’re all learning the new layout almost as much as you will be. And about the time any of us get it figured out, they’ll change it again.”
“That’s encouraging.” I laughed with humor I didn’t really feel.
At the third floor, he turned, and I fell into step next to him. We headed down a hallway that was half-finished and half-covered in duct-taped plastic, caution signs, and bare concrete with toolboxes and ladders tucked neatly out of the way. There wasn’t any activity, though.
“Nobody working on the remodel right now?” I asked just to make conversation.
“They do the work at night. Too many people in the building with PTSD.”
He glanced at me. “Most of the doors have signs reminding people not to slam them, and we’ve tried to fix the supply closets and file drawers so they don’t make so much noise, but it’s not perfect. If there’s one thing you really, really have to remember in this place, it’s to keep the loud noises to a minimum. Try not to startle anyone. That kind of thing.”
I nodded without speaking. Why hadn’t anyone told me sooner there were places where it was office etiquette to assume your coworkers had PTSD? That could’ve saved me three jobs and fuck knew how many of the dollars I’d poured into liquor stores in the name of keeping my shit together.
Better late than never, right?
We passed through the admin department. Clint’s husband, Travis, had run that area when they’d met, but he’d retired last month. According to both of them, the new head of admin was a bit of an asshole.
“He’s a commander,” I’d said over dinner the other night. “Of course he’s an asshole.” They’d both glared at me playfully, and I’d added with a grin, “Oh. Sorry, Commanders.”
Clint and I didn’t stop to meet the guy, though, and continued down the hall, following the signs toward training. We passed through an area with several guys in camouflage working in waist-high cubicles, and some did double takes when they saw me.
I cringed. I didn’t recognize any of them, but I was pretty sure they recognized me from the Navy Ball I’d gone to with Clint the night we’d split up. My memory of that debacle was fuzzy, but I knew he’d introduced me to several of his coworkers. Working around them was going to be a blast. Especially since I could hear some hushed murmurs behind us as we turned the corner.
“They remember me, don’t they?” I asked under my breath.
Clint clapped my shoulder gently. “Relax. Yeah, they remember you, but they also know you wouldn’t be working here if you hadn’t picked yourself up off the ground.” He gave another squeeze, then let go. “If anyone gives you any shit, I’ll squash it. Promise.”
“Thanks.” His reassurance helped, but my nerves weren’t getting any better. And I hadn’t even met my own coworkers yet.
At the end of the hall, Clint knocked on the door marked TRAINING. Then he pushed it open. “Ramírez? You around? Your new victim is here.” He winked at me.
“Be there in a minute,” came a familiar, accented voice from behind a taller cubicle wall.
I gulped. I hadn’t met my new boss yet. They’d needed to fill the vacancy quickly, and he’d been on the East Coast when I’d interviewed, so we’d just talked on the phone for a few minutes before he’d given Clint the okay to put in for my contract. I’d liked him from the phone interview, but he was a little intimidating too. Terse. To the point. I’d immediately gotten the impression he wasn’t a man who took shit from anyone, and it didn’t matter if there was a commander who had my back. Diego ran the training department now, and, like me, he was a civilian contractor. Rank didn’t scare him.
“Okay, well.” Clint cleared his throat. “Sarah sits over here, so this must . . .” He looked around at the three desks divided by more of the gray waist-high walls. One had photos and signs of life. The other two each had a computer and a phone, plus tons of thick binders, sticky notes with phone numbers on them, and calendars. That was about it. “Diego, which desk is his?”
“By the window. On your left if you’re in the doorway.”
“Right. By the window and on the left.” Clint motioned toward the desk. “You’ve got your ID card, right?” He motioned for me to give it to him. I took the lanyard off my neck and handed it over. Clint slid the card out of the case and into the slot on the side of the keyboard. “You’ll need to put your ID in here whenever you log in to your computer. Diego will give you all the information you need for logging in and—”
“And he’ll take it from here,” Diego broke in.
I turned to see my new boss. He was the epitome of a civilian contractor. Scruffy beard. Polo shirt and khakis. A red coffee cup with Fuck You, Sir in big white letters. No tie in sight. No military bearing whatsoever. I immediately liked him.
I extended my hand. “Hi. Um. I’m Logan.”
He shook it, smiling back. “Diego. Casey should be here soon; he’s down at security teaching a class.”
“If you’ve got this under control,” Clint said, “I’m going to step out and—”
“Yeah, you are.” Diego made a shooing motion toward the door. “Move along, Commander.”
Clint flipped him off, but they both chuckled. Okay, so when he’d told me this was a pretty informal atmosphere, he hadn’t been kidding.
Finally, one of my twitchy nerves relaxed. There were plenty left that were bowstring tight, but I’d take what I could get.
Clint turned to me. “Call me when you head to lunch. I’ll take you to the O club.”
I nodded. “Will do. Thanks again.”
He left, and it was just me and Diego.
“So.” Diego gestured at my desk. “Have a seat, and I’ll walk you through everything.”
It wasn’t as overwhelming as I’d expected. My job involved coordinating training programs for the various departments around the base, maintaining the classroom schedule, and teaching classes. The teaching part still made me nervous, but Diego assured me I’d be sitting in on classes taught by him or one of the other trainers before they turned me loose on my own.
“Sarah’s my second-in-command.” He nodded toward the desk that looked lived-in. “She’s downstairs teaching right now, but she should be back”—he craned his neck to look at the clock—“in a half hour or so. During the weeks I’m traveling, she’s in charge.”
“You travel a lot?”
Diego shrugged. “Couple times a month, depending on the schedule.”
I nodded. “Good to know.”
He opened his mouth to say something, but someone knocked at the department door. “That’s probably Casey.”
We had to knock to get into our own department? But hadn’t Clint just pushed it open after he’d knocked? What the hell?
Diego pulled open the door, and the knock made sense—crutches.
The other guy—Casey, apparently—hobbled inside, dressed in green camouflage like Clint’s and holding a folder in his teeth. And . . . holy shit. I was supposed to be a productive employee while I was sitting across from him? I’d always been a sucker for military guys and the high-and-tight haircuts, and uniforms were sexy as fuck, but some guys definitely stood out from the crowd. This platinum blond with bright-blue eyes? Holy shit.
Oblivious to me and still clutching the folder between his teeth, Casey gave Diego a sharp nod, and Diego took the folder.
“The fuck is this?” Diego muttered, eyeing it.
“El jefe sent it over.” Casey didn’t sound pleased. “Wouldn’t even put it in my backpack for me.”
Diego rolled his eyes. “And he couldn’t walk thirty feet and give it to me instead of making you carry it? Fucker.” He gave Casey a sympathetic grimace. “I’ll mention it to him.”
“‘El jefe’?” I asked cautiously.
“The commander who runs admin.” Diego added something under his breath, but I didn’t catch it. “Lazy fucker would rather dump shit off on someone who’s got his hands full”—he gestured at Casey’s hands on the crutches—“than carry it himself.”
“Hate that guy.” Casey continued toward his desk. “But it is what it is.” He paused to slide his backpack off his shoulders and let it drop to the floor with a heavy thud. “I just wish Commander Wilson would come back.”
“Don’t think retirement works that way.” Diego glanced inside the folder, then tucked it under his arm. “Logan, this is GM2 Olson, but we just call him Casey. Casey, this is Logan. He’s taking over for MA3 Stevens.”
“Oh, hey.” Casey leaned on one crutch and extended his hand. “Nice to meet you.” Was I imagining the down-up flick of his eyes? Probably.
“Yeah, you too.” I tried not to be too conspicuous about looking him up and down. Hopefully, he just took it as curiosity about the cast immobilizing his left leg from six inches above his knee. Not from being caught off guard by how hot he was. Or by how gorgeous his vivid blue eyes were. He had smooth features—more of a baby face than I usually liked—but it worked for him.
“Sorry about the door,” Diego said, pulling Casey’s attention away from me. “I forgot to prop it open for you.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Casey eased himself down into the chair. “But I’ll remember it next time I order lunch.”
Diego shot him a look. “Don’t you dare.”
Casey showed his palms and grinned innocently. “Fair’s fair, right?”
They locked eyes, both looking pissed off, but then Diego laughed, shaking his head, and Casey snickered.
Yeah, I was going to get along with this group just fine.
A phone rang, and Diego gave me a hold on gesture before disappearing into his cubicle.
Casey turned to me. He propped up his leg and leaned back in his chair. Lacing his hands behind his head, he asked, “So you’re an ex-Marine?”
I tried not to act surprised. Apparently, they’d been briefed about me. “No such thing as an ex-Marine. Semper Fi.”
He chuckled, but didn’t really seem to feel it. “How long were you in?”
“Eight years. I’ve been discharged for almost seven, though.”
His eyebrows rose. “Yeah? You’re probably making bank as a contractor, then.”
I tried not to shift uncomfortably. “This is my first contract, actually.”
“What were you doing before?”
Slowly and steadily self-destructing. “Nothing I want to keep doing.”
He gave a little grunt of what must’ve been approval. “Well, it’s not a bad gig. I’m only here until this”—he knocked on the hard cast—“finally fucking heals.”
“How long will that be?”
“Too long,” he grumbled. “Docs say the cast will be off soon, but it’ll be at least three or four months after that before I can run. Assuming I don’t need more surgery.”
“Yeah, careful working in this office, Logan.” Diego stepped out of his cube, thumbing through a stack of papers as he spoke. “It’s the office of cursed legs.”
“Pfft.” Casey rolled his eyes. “We all had fucked-up legs before we got here.”
“We did,” Diego corrected. “What about Sarah?”
Casey’s eyes flicked toward the empty desk. “Okay. Fair. But still, that’s only one person who got hurt after they started in this place.”
“Exactly. Three people in an office of four have shit legs.” Diego glanced at me. “Careful with yours, my friend.”
“Duly noted,” I said.
“I’ll be right back,” Diego told me. “I need to talk to the XO, and then I’ll walk you through the safety program. That’s what you’ll be teaching first.”
I nodded, and as Diego headed out, I noticed for the first time he had a subtle limp. “Cursed legs, huh?” I turned to Casey. “What’d you do to yours?”
Casey’s mood immediately darkened. He dropped his gaze for a second, but then shook himself and cleared his throat. “Got hurt at BUD/S.”
I blinked. “Wow, really?”
“Yep,” he said bitterly. “Hey, I’m in good company, right? Isn’t it like ninety-seven percent of BUD/S recruits that wash out?”
I wasn’t sure what to say to that. It was common knowledge that all the special forces training programs, especially the SEALs, lost most of their recruits. I’d met a few washouts, and never quite knew what to say to them. If they’d busted their asses that hard to get in and didn’t make it through to the end—that shit stung.
And it was an injury that had killed Casey’s shot at a trident. He might very well have had the mental and physical wherewithal to be a SEAL. But whatever had happened to his leg . . .
“I’m sorry,” I finally managed to say. “That . . . must be tough.”
“Yeah.” His voice was dry. Distant. “It is.”
“But hey, at least no one’s shooting at you in here, right?”
Casey set his jaw. “Something like that.”
Silence fell. After a moment, he turned back to his desk. I chewed my lip, really at a loss for what to say, especially since I didn’t know him at all. I held back a comment about how he’d dodged a bullet. Quite possibly a literal one. People didn’t join the military to avoid getting shot at. Finding out you weren’t going into the heart of a war zone was comforting to the side of you that wanted to survive, but it didn’t do good things to the part that was trained to fight.
Someone like him who was driven enough to become a SEAL was never going to be happy anywhere but the front lines. Someone like me who’d been to the front lines would never be able to explain that it was a circle of hell we wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Not even the ones who wanted to be there.