Sean Chandler walks into a dive bar, and into Corey's life. An actor and a musician, Sean has the empathy and compassion to sooth Corey's pain, and the strength to support him as he struggles to heal.
Corey's lost memories are pivotal to a civilian murder, and a military investigation. Remembering could mean salvation, or destruction. Will the truth be too much for Sean to handle?
It was Tuesday night and Corey needed a drink. He hadn't needed a drink like this in more than two years, when he'd been deployed to Afghanistan. He sat on the foot of his narrow bed in the Bachelor's Enlisted Quarters and tried not to think of the bottle stashed in the ceiling of his room. The last time he'd needed a drink this bad was just after the cluster-fuck in Diyala, Iraq. It had damn near gotten good men killed, including Corey.
He scrubbed both hands roughly over his face and sat for a moment with his eyes closed. What Corey really needed was sleep, but sleep usually meant dreams, and he couldn't relive that shit one more time.
Fuck it. He stood up on his bed, pushed the ceiling panel upward and retrieved the black-labeled bottle he'd stashed there. He was a decorated Staff Sergeant now, he didn't have to hide his stash as well as he had when he'd been a boot PFC. Corey broke the seal and unscrewed the cap, bringing the neck of the bottle to his lips and swallowing greedily.
Whiskey always burned on the first swallow. It probably burned on the second and third swallows, but the first one always stole his breath so he couldn't think of anything else for several minutes. There was a trail of fire from Corey's mouth to his gut and it helped him not to think. If he drank the whole bottle he'd probably sleep without dreams. At least he might be too drunk to wake up from them and remember.
Corey was halfway through the bottle when the warmth began to spread. He should stop now, hide the bottle again and get some sleep. He knew he wouldn't stop. This was his ritual every night. It had been the same since he'd come back from Afghanistan and taken the instructor position at the Basic Recon Course.
Glancing at the bottle, Corey realized if he showed up on the course tomorrow with so much as bleary eyes and no record of having left base, someone might get the idea to toss his barracks room with some intent and efficiency.
Grabbing his cell phone, he called his usual cab company and arranged a pick up outside the front gate. He changed clothes, put his cell and his wallet in the pocket of his jeans, and headed out on foot.
Corey nodded at the young Marine staffing the gate and climbed into his waiting cab. He considered which bar address to give the driver. He liked that dive bar in Bonsal but that was a long drive. He wanted to still be drunk when he got back to base. Corey told the driver the address of a little place on the way to San Marcos. It was slightly more upscale than he preferred, but was usually quiet on Tuesdays.
He intended to drink and had no interest in talking. In fact, his buzz was fading so it was definitely time to pick up where he'd left off.
The bartender, Linda, he thought her name was, gave him a nod of recognition as he took a stool at the far end of the bar. He ordered a shot and a beer. A steady stream of those should dull his senses nicely.
His seat at the bar gave him a clear view of both exits and all of the occupied tables, not that there were many. Corey relaxed slightly. If things stayed like this, he could drink for several hours, make it back to base for a few hours of sleep, and be at the pool early to fish out wannabe Recon Marines before they drowned.
He was starting on his second drink, just beginning to slump over the bar, when a woman stumbled through the front door. Corey took stock of her. At first, he thought she was already drunk. When she sat heavily on a barstool and ordered a rum and coke, he realized she'd been crying.
So, not drunk, just upset and looking to drown her sorrows. Corey could respect that. He made sure to avoid eye contact, though. Usually, the thing that had a woman publicly upset was a man, and Corey had no desire to be tagged as a possible rebound fuck.
Many years ago, Corey had found himself a rebound fuck to help him forget Kathryn. Trouble was, his rebound fuck had been another man and Corey hadn't been with a woman since. There was no chance of turning back now.
Time passed, Corey drank, and some of the tables emptied out. Everyone left was getting steadily drunker. Corey knew the moment when the men around the bar realized they all only had one shot at getting laid tonight.
"Hey, what's your name, honey?" one of the men called down the bar.
The woman sat sipping her drink, spinning her cell phone on top of the bar.
"Hey, I said, what's your name?" he called a little louder.
The woman heaved a sigh. "I don't want to be rude, but I'm just here to drink. I don't want to talk."
"Only one reason a woman comes to a bar alone to drink, and it ain't to get drunk," the man growled, his tone becoming decidedly aggressive.
Corey pushed his unfinished drink away. He knew that was bullshit. He never understood why straight men had so much trouble taking no for an answer. Alcohol mixed with testosterone never helped.
The woman thumbed the screen of her phone and put it to her ear. "Are you awake? Yeah, I know that's why I called you...Can you come get me? I've been drinking...We broke up...The same reasons we always break up. He's just not the one."
As she hung up her phone, Corey hoped the woman's girlfriend hurried. All three drunken men at the bar were now trying to engage her in conversation. She glanced surreptitiously at Corey, probably trying to determine why he wasn't harassing her, too. When their eyes met, Corey recognized pain and loneliness. He'd worn that same look for a couple of years after Kathryn had dumped him. He probably still did, only now it shared space with haunting memories.
Linda tried to calm the men down but had little success. They were growing more rowdy and abusive, probably the whole group hysteria thing. Corey didn't want to have to intervene, but a good Marine wouldn't let a woman be treated with disrespect. A good man wouldn't allow it. Corey tried hard to be both.
The front door creaked open and Corey turned, expecting to see the woman's girlfriend enter. Instead, Corey's heart slammed against his ribs and his mouth fell open slightly. A tall, broad shouldered man with the sexiest ski-jump nose Corey had ever seen strode into the bar. He was lightly tanned and had pale eyes that weren't blue, like Corey's. Hazel colored, maybe? His biceps nearly burst the sleeves of his T-shirt and Corey could see every ripple of his muscles beneath the thin fabric.
"Hey, Sean, what brings you here tonight?" Linda greeted him.
Nodding toward the woman seated at the bar, Sean replied, "Picking up my friend."
"You got here just in time," Linda said. "Things were getting a little heated."
Sean's eyes darted to Corey, which made sense, given that Corey was seated closest to his friend. Corey tried to appear disinterested, but he was far from it. Women usually turned to their girlfriends after a break up. Unless one of their guy friends was gay.
Linda shook her head. "Nah, the Marine's on his best behavior." She lifted her chin toward the other end of the bar.
Sean's expression hardened. "We should go, then," he said, laying a hand gently on his friend's shoulder.
"You're here this weekend, right?" Linda asked.
"Me and my guitar, Thursday through Saturday," Sean answered. "I'll see you then."
Corey had no idea what kind of music Sean played but he suspected he'd be stopping by to find out.
"What'd ya call the fag for, honey? You know you came here lookin' for a real man," one of the drunks slurred, rising from his stool.
"Carl, sit down and finish your drink," Linda said sharply.
Sean acted as though he hadn't heard. He helped his friend to stand and started to lead her toward the door.
"Slut came in here looking to get fucked and now she's leaving with the faggot," Carl shouted, his two drunken friends grunting their agreement.
"I'm not a slut and I didn't come here to get laid," Sean's friend screeched, turning back on the men unsteadily. Sean continued to try to get her out the door.
Corey sat up straight, one foot on the floor. Things were going to shit fast and he was going to have to do something. He had no idea if Sean's muscles were for show or if he knew how to throw down.
"No other reason a woman comes to a bar alone," Carl rounded the bar, approaching Sean and his friend.
Sean turned on Carl, squaring off and putting his body between his friend and the drunk. "And what the fuck do you come here for? You sit here night after night, hoping someone will come in here, either pathetic enough or stupid enough to finally suck your dick. Why the fuck is that okay for you and not for her?"
Corey came off of his stool and crossed the room in a few strides. He pushed past Sean and slammed a hand into Carl's chest. "Back off, old man," he said, using the same tone he'd used in Afghanistan, when he'd faced an unruly crowd. "This is a nice place and you don't want to cause trouble." With his free hand, Corey made a flicking gesture behind his own back, encouraging Sean to take his friend and go.
Carl looked up at Corey, gaze blurry and expression belligerent. "This ain't your fuckin' business," Carl shouted, his breath sour with the smell of too much alcohol.
Corey realized he was seeing his own future if he didn't get himself squared away.
"Carl, you don't want to mess with him," Linda said from behind the bar. "He's twenty years younger than you and the government taught him how to kill people in foreign countries."
Carl shuffled back a few steps when Corey pushed at his chest. The creak of the door told him Sean and his friend had made their getaway. Carl retreated only as far as the corner of the bar. It was far enough.
Corey turned to Linda. "Thank you for your good service this evening, ma'am," he said, inclining his head slightly. He'd paid cash as he drank so there was no tab to settle. Corey backed his way toward the door, pulling out his cell phone as he did.
In the parking lot, Corey tried to ignore Sean's rounded ass as he helped his friend get settled in the passenger seat of a small SUV. Sean turned and saw him.
"Hey," he called, closing the door and approaching Corey. "I wanted to say thanks."
Corey paused in the act of dialing the cab company. Sean came to stand several inches away from him. He was slightly shorter than Corey's six foot one. His features were sharply angled, except for that upturned nose. He was very handsome and this close, Corey could smell his cologne. He liked it.
"No problem," Corey answered, clenching his jaw and swallowing down his sudden rush of desire. "Those guys are drunk assholes and I hate to see good people victimized. Is your friend okay?"
Sean buried his hands in the front pockets of his jeans like he didn't know what to do with them. "Aimee's fine. She just had a lot to drink and is upset over another breakup. She'll sleep it off."
"Good. Okay." Corey awkwardly glanced at his phone, his stomach knotting as he tried to think of something to say. He thumbed the screen, pulling up the cab company's phone number.
"I'm Sean, by the way." He abruptly pulled a hand from his pocket and stuck it out. "Sean Chandler."
"Corey Yarwood." When their hands touched, Corey's fingers tingled. Sean's grip was firm and confident. He met Corey's eyes steadily.
The door of the bar suddenly slammed open, crashing against the wall. Sean startled, yanking his hand from Corey's and looking past him in alarm.
With a heavy sigh of annoyance, Corey pocketed his cell phone and rolled his eyes. He turned to face their attackers, not surprised to find all three drunks staggering their direction. Back inside the bar, Linda was coming through the lifted counter of the bar, cordless phone in hand.
"He ain't no Marine, he's a faggot, too," spat one of Carl's companions.
Corey's entire body tensed. It was a reaction ingrained in him over the years. He still wasn't used to living without Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Looking from one ruddy face to the other, he realized it didn't matter anyway. It was the easiest insult these fuckers could muster in their inebriated states. They probably didn't even really think Corey was gay.
"Get in your car and get out of here," he said to Sean over his shoulder.
Corey didn't wait for the drunks to say anything else, or to make the first move. He didn't want anyone hurt and he couldn't afford having to have his Gunnery Sergeant bail him out of jail.
He strode toward the men with purpose, hands clenched at his sides. Since they were cowards, there was a chance they'd scatter in the face of a genuine threat. Too full of liquid courage, the three stood their ground. Corey kicked out with his left leg, connecting with Carl's gut and knocking him to the ground. He hooked his left arm around the neck of the man in the center and jerked him forward, off balance. Spinning the guy around easily, Corey locked his elbow around the man's throat, restricting his breathing just enough to make him focus on survival instead of combat.
"Don't even think about it," Corey said angrily, pointing a finger at the last man standing. He placed the guy in the choke hold between himself and Carl, knowing it would prevent Carl from launching a direct attack. If he could get to his feet, that was.
"You three don't make me call the Sheriff," Linda shouted from the doorway, holding up the cordless phone. "If I do, you three are gonna spend the night in Vista jail. Three drunks ganging up on a war hero isn't gonna play well with the deputies and you assholes know it!"
The one drunk who was still standing looked hesitant now, as he eyed Corey. The guy in his arms had stopped struggling. Carl slowly pulled himself to his feet, but didn't look like he was contemplating any aggression.
"Are you guys gonna play nice or does the lady have to make that phone call?" Corey asked calmly.
"You three get on down the road," Linda said, visibly shaking with anger.
Carl and his companion slowly began to walk along the outside of the building, heading toward the street. Corey shoved the third drunk away from himself, just enough to make him stumble and deny him any chance to turn and attack.
"Are they going to be okay walking home like that?" Corey asked Linda.
"They do it every night," she replied with disdain. "They all live in apartment complexes nearby, which is why they come here."
Again, Corey realized, with a sick feeling, that he was looking at his own future if he wasn't careful.
"Thank you for everything," Linda said suddenly. "I hope they don't put you off coming back in. They probably won't remember any of this in the morning."
Corey shrugged. "We'll see what happens this weekend." His desire to see Sean again would probably overpower any reluctance.
"Hope to see you then." Linda smiled and tugged the door closed.
Corey pulled out his cell phone again and turned, expecting to see an empty parking lot. He stopped short at the sight of Sean standing in front of his SUV, watching. He could just make out Aimee's riveted expression through the tinted passenger window.
He told himself that Sean was just making sure Corey didn't get hurt. There was no reason for Corey to be pleased Sean hadn't fled when he'd told him to.
"I thought I told you to take Aimee and go home," Corey called as he started across the parking lot again. He wanted more contact with Sean despite himself.
"I couldn't just leave you here to deal with that," Sean said mockingly. "I'm not a selfish asshole."
"I had it under control." Corey stopped several feet from Sean, not daring to get closer.
"Yeah, I saw that," Sean replied enthusiastically. "You could have seriously hurt those guys, but you didn't. Did you really learn that in the Marines?"
"Yeah," Corey answered. "And there was no need to hurt them. They surrendered."
"That's really impressive." Sean smiled wide, showing off perfectly straight, white teeth.
Corey stood staring at him stupidly. Shit. He hadn't been this tongue-tied by a man since Jonah Carver. "They were drunk. There was nothing to it."
"I'd have just thrown punches and ended up with a bruised face, which I can't afford to have happen," Sean replied hastily. "Where's your car?" he asked, glancing around the otherwise empty parking lot.
Corey held up his phone. "I'm just going to call a taxi."
"Let me give you a ride home," said Sean eagerly. "I can't leave you here to wait for a cab after you helped us."
Corey waved him off. "No, that's okay. I take cabs all the time."
"It's the least I can do. You can't live far." Sean's persistence was having an effect on Corey.
"I live on base," he told Sean, frighteningly close to caving in.
"That's fine." Sean walked around Corey to the passenger side of the SUV. He opened the door and reached for Aimee's seat belt. "Crawl into the back seat."
"Why me?" she demanded petulantly.
"Because you're just going to pass out anyway and you're two feet shorter than he is," he retorted, bundling her into the back seat.
"I don't want to be an inconvenience," Corey protested.
Sean rolled his eyes. "She really is going to pass out as soon as we start driving. This isn't the first time I've been through this. Get in."
Almost as soon as Sean pulled onto the street, Aimee's head lolled back and she was sound asleep.
"She lives closest so I'll drop her off first," Sean said quietly.
"I appreciate this." Corey really did like being this close to Sean rather than by himself in a taxi.
"It's the least I can do, for you putting your body between us and three violent drunks." Sean glanced at him with a small smile.
"I didn't know if you could handle it on your own or not, but I knew I could," was the only thing Corey could think to say.
"I probably could have gotten us out of there but not unscathed." Sean still spoke softly and it felt intimate.
They were silent until Sean pulled into Aimee's apartment complex. When Sean opened the car door and shook her awake, Aimee seemed groggy. She stumbled out of the SUV, falling up against Sean.
Corey unfastened his seatbelt and climbed out. Sean might need some help getting her safely into her apartment. With him on one side and Sean on the other, Aimee stumbled her way toward a set of metal steps.
As she slowly took one step at a time, Corey heard her say, "Sorry to have to make you do this, Sean."
"You called me because you knew I'd still be awake," he replied with the weariness of a frequently inconvenienced friend who had heard all the apologies before.
"I just don't know why I can't find a guy who loves me," Aimee whined sadly.
"They do love you. They just don't love you in the exact way you think they should so you're never satisfied." Sean sounded like they'd had this conversation several times before. Drunk and sober.
Corey's stomach lurched as Sean's words hit particularly close to home.
They reached the second floor and turned right. Aimee rummaged in her purse, probably for her keys. "You always say that to me," she mumbled.
Sean slid a key from his own ring into a deadbolt and opened the apartment door. "You expect men to behave in a certain, precise way and you reject them when they don't." He pushed the door open for Aimee to enter. "You have unrealistic expectations and no man is ever going to live up to them."
Corey immediately thought of Jonah, and how no man he'd met since seemed to measure up. He breathed through the sudden tightening in his chest.
Aimee leaned in and pressed a kiss to Sean's mouth. "You would."
"And I'm emotionally unavailable to you," he replied calmly, giving her a gentle shove to get her moving into the apartment. "Are you okay to get yourself into bed?"
"Yes, dad," Aimee answered, words heavily laced with sarcasm.
Sean secured the doorknob lock, closed the door and used the key to secure the deadbolt. He met Corey's eyes with a shake of his head and a heavy sigh. "Come on, let's get you back to base."
When they were back on the road, Corey's curiosity got the better of him. "Did I hear you tell Linda you were going to be in the bar this weekend with a guitar?"
"Yeah," Sean answered quickly. "I play there on weekends a lot. It supplements my income and gives me a chance to try out new material on a live audience."
Corey was intrigued. "New material? You write songs?"
"Among other things. I'm usually up until three or four a.m. writing, which is why Aimee calls me to come get her," Sean said ruefully.
Why Corey was glad to know Sean hadn't been awake with another man, he wasn't sure.
"What about you?" Sean asked suddenly. "Have you been a Marine long?"
"Since I was twenty-one," Corey answered. "So yeah, almost seven years."
"That means you've been deployed a couple of times, doesn't it?" Sean's tone was careful.
"Twice," Corey said tightly, swallowing against the lump in his throat.
"It's good you made it home safe both times," Sean said quietly, letting the topic drop.
Corey resisted the urge to tell him that he hadn't made it home safely either time. He'd just met this guy and confessing the kind of damage Corey had sustained; the nightly anguish he endured, would be crazy.
Not that Corey didn't sometimes suspect that he was.
A silence settled over them that wasn't entirely uncomfortable. Corey liked that Sean didn't feel the need for constant chatter.
"You know what impressed me the most tonight?" Sean asked after many long minutes. "That you didn't react at all when those guys called you a fag."
Corey had to admit that was the smoothest introduction of that topic he'd ever witnessed. "It wasn't personal." Corey shrugged. "They were just throwing out a general use, one size fits all insult."
"Still, I've seen guys lose their shit over that general use insult," Sean said dourly.
"Even if it wasn't true, those guys weren't worth my career." He waited to see what Sean would do with the information he'd just been given.
"Are you..." Sean hesitated, as if selecting his words carefully. "Did you come out after the repeal?"
"No, but not because I'm hiding it," Corey explained. "I'm just private by nature. Most of the guys I work with don't know anything about my personal life at all." Making friends just meant more chances that someone would uncover his demons.
They neared the main gate at Camp Pendleton and Sean slowed the vehicle. "You should come out this weekend, let me buy you a drink."
"The ride home is thanks enough," Corey said, forcing a smile. He was disappointed their time together was at an end. "You don't have to buy me a drink, too."
"I didn't say I wanted to buy you a drink to say thanks," Sean said levelly. He met Corey's eyes, expression inscrutable.
Corey wanted to. He wanted to see Sean again. He nodded. "Yeah, maybe I will."
Sean's smile lit up the dark interior of the vehicle as he pulled to a stop near the gate to let Corey out. "Good. See you this weekend."
Corey showed his I.D. to the kid now on duty and slipped back on base virtually unnoticed. He slid quietly into his room and retrieved his hidden bottle from the ceiling. He knew he shouldn't, but Corey swallowed down the last of the contents. Afterward, he stood alone in the center of his room, breathing heavy.
He stripped down to his skivvies and shut out the light. Crawling beneath the scratchy covers, Corey lay in the dark. He closed his eyes, feeling the room tumble around him slightly. He sighed in relief; probably no nightmare tonight.
Sean's face drifted across the back of his closed lids. Corey slid his hand beneath the waist band of his skivvy shorts as he remembered light brown hair, hazel eyes, and a brilliant smile. He squeezed his dick, stroked himself several times. No joy. He was too fucking drunk to get hard.
Corey threw his arm over his eyes and waited until the blackness overtook him.