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The sun is out, the birds are singing, and I’ve had not just one bowl of cereal this morning, but two. It’s a perfect day for a good, old-fashioned fist up the ass. Luckily, my commanding officer and his permanent scowl seem more than willing to accommodate me on that front.
I take a deep breath and grin as heat rains down my neck and back like the breath of hell. Thankfully, a breeze rolls in through the cracked window carrying the scent of summer rain just as new recruits jog past. Their voices ring out, rising in a familiar chant that seems to dip in unison with their every footfall.
“Is it crack?” Captain George Redding snaps. “Is that what you smoke? You smoke crack? Because it’s the only thing that makes sense. There’s no way in hell one of my men would be this idiotic.”
The muscles in my back spasm from overuse and there’s a hard ball of pressure against the arch of my foot. The chair stationed before Redding’s desk calls my name, but I ignore it. He’s already pissed, and he’d probably keel over if I sit without permission while he’s busy tearing me a third asshole.
Unfortunately, my team leader and good friend, Jim Stephens, beat him to the construction of the second one as soon as he found out what I’d done. Even my best friend and teammate, Lucas Craiger, gave me a hard time. The only one who isn’t currently riding my ass about the exciting new change to my relationship status is my other teammate, Bear, since he’s off with his wife picking up their eldest daughter, Hayden, from college. After she went to Italy for a study-abroad program last summer, Bear wasn’t taking any chances of his daughter finding another reason to spend the summer away from home.
He’s calling me by my first name. If the number of ass whoopings I received from my abuela after she called out my full first name when I was a kid was anything to go by, that means I’m currently at DEFCON 1. Time to lay on the charm.
I straighten to my full height and stare straight ahead. If standing at attention were an Olympic sport, they’d owe me a fucking gold medal. “No, sir! I’m not on crack, sir.”
With a groan that seems to embody every one of his fifty-two years, my commanding officer lowers himself into his seat and massages his temples. “What’s going on with you, Martinez? You’ve been back for eight hours and already I want to strangle you.” Redding shakes his head, his lips pressing into a thin line, his expression full of disapproval. “Do you have any idea the position you’ve put me in?”
My throat constricts. Signing up for the Issued Partner Program wasn’t some drunken mistake. We’d been outside the wire and got ambushed. Pinned down for hours. It’d been one of the worst firefights I’d been in. When we got back to the Forward Operating Base, I’d been exhausted and . . . overwhelmed. Then I’d seen my teammates talking to their families and it was as if a horse kicked me directly in the chest because I didn’t have anyone to call.
I swallow past the knot in my throat, ghosts of the emotions from that day clawing their way into my conscience. Not exactly sure how I’d arrived at the conclusion later that night that allowing the military to issue me a wife would solve my problems by alleviating my loneliness while giving me a leg up on Officer Candidate School, but I had, and here I am now. No way am I explaining what really happened. If there’s one trait most likely to kill my chances of getting accepted to OCS, it’s my impulsivity. “To be honest, sir, when I signed up for the Issued Partner Program, you weren’t exactly the first thought on my mind.”
Redding’s face flushes red and his gaze darkens. “Well, maybe I should have been.”
The twinge of guilt is unexpected and unwelcome. It isn’t as if I don’t understand Redding’s position. The program is still new. Still being tested. Which means anyone who signs up must have also have a recommendation from their CO. The problem is that while I technically meet all the qualifications, I’m no one’s Golden Boy, least of all George Redding’s. That honor is reserved exclusively for Jim, which means I have to work twice as hard for the same amount of praise. For me, there’s no room for mistakes. But that didn’t seem to stop me from screwing this up.
Redding’s fingers lace together. He takes a deep breath and the tension in his shoulders eases. “This isn’t something you’ll be able to bullshit your way through, Martinez. If I find out you’re screwing around—no, if I even hear a single whisper that you’re not busting your ass to make this marriage work before the entire three hundred and sixty-five days are up—I’ll make sure you aren’t accepted into OCS. Hell, I may even discharge your ass.”
A muscle in my jaw ticks. Three hundred and sixty-five days, holy hell. When he lays the minimum timeline out like that, it sounds like an eternity. Still, I’d gotten myself into this. Now I had to suck it up. One year before I can request an annulment. I could do this. I had to because the alternative is unacceptable. I stand a little straighter. “Sir, I take the program and my inclusion in it very seriously.”
I love the military, but I didn’t enlist because of an overwhelming sense of patriotism, like Jim, a need to protect, like Bear, or for a sense of direction, like Craiger. I signed up because I was running away. But that doesn’t negate the fact that I’m a goddamn warrior and would make one hell of an officer—even if I’m the only one who sees it right now. I’m resilient as hell, and quitting isn’t a part of my vocabulary. I’m a leader. Always have been. Shit, ever since Mamá died, I’d had to be.
Shaking my head, I force away the past and bring my focus back to the here and now. This isn’t the time or place. My job is on the line. Especially since I have to convince Redding I’m not some fuckup deserving of a dishonorable discharge.
He still looks doubtful and I scramble for something else to say, anything to convince him that I’m sincere. Scanning the room, my eyes land on a picture of Redding’s grandson on a bookcase near the window and I puff my chest out. “Scout’s honor.”
Redding studies me for an interminable amount of time before reaching into his desk and pulling out a manila envelope. To be the key to my future, it doesn’t look like much. Plain. Not very thick. Boring.
“For your sake, Martinez, I hope you make a better husband than you did a Scout.”
Since I’ve never been a Boy Scout, that should be a piece of cake. I accept the envelope and escape while I still can. The paper wrinkles in my fist as I stride out the door, and I take a deep breath and relax my hand before I step outside.
The fresh air is a welcome respite from the stale atmosphere of Redding’s office. Hell, I can practically smell the Ugg boots and vanilla chai latte. The scent of America. The scent of true freedom. The scent of horny girls on summer break. An impish smile spreads across my face. God, it’s good to be back in the States. The slight clink of metal on metal as the rings inside collide catches my attention and my smile dies a limp-dicked death. I’m only halfway across base and already I’ve forgotten that I’m about to be married.
I roll my shoulders and a surge of excitement bubbles in my gut. Rings aside, I’m eager to find out who I’m hitched to. I mean, how bad can it be? I get all the perks of a wife with an option for a way out after a year. Jim lucked out with Taya. If that grim bastard can pull a ten, there’s no way in hell I can do any worse. For a moment I lose myself in the daydream of what married life must be like. Lots of fucking, obviously. And home-cooked meals, if I’m lucky enough to get someone who can cook, unlike Jim, whose wife manages to burn microwavable pancakes.
I chuckle and shake my head. “Shit, I don’t need a cook. I’m a Latino Gordon-fucking-Ramsey.”
A passing recruit shoots me a look and I bare my teeth in reply. He hurries away and I know that in the future, he’ll try a little harder to mind his own goddamn business. This is America, for fuck’s sake. A man should be allowed to talk to himself in public without people getting all judgmental. Unable to contain myself, I slide into my car, open the envelope, and pull out the paperwork so I can get a look at my new bride.
Nah. This can’t be right. I glance out the window from side to side before popping open the glove compartment. Inside is a pair of reading glasses. Last week, I told Jim he was so old, he probably shits dust. I stand behind the statement, of course, but my credibility for further smack talking goes out the window the second any of my teammates find out I’m packing CVS non-prescription-rack reading glasses.
I peer through the lenses, frowning like a disapproving abuela as I scan the words again. “Oh, shit.”
This is karma. It has to be. God saw all the times I looked at Taya’s ass when Jim wasn’t paying attention and now has decided to match me to Inara Ramirez, Taya’s best friend. The woman I once flirted with in Taya’s hospital room. Then again at the vending machine in the hallway. Her head was bent, body slumped with exhaustion and worry, and where her shirt lay crooked over one shoulder, I could just make out the edge of what had to be a tattoo. And, of course, I said the dumbest thing I could’ve managed to say.
“What’s a sexy senorita like yourself doing in a place like this?”
I groan and lean forward until the steering wheel digs into my forehead. I meant the comment to come across as charming, cute even, but the look she shot me chilled the blood in my veins. There couldn’t have been a worse time for me to flirt. Not after Taya was attacked by some hitman and each of us were worried and angry, struggling to cope with the knowledge that some New York crime boss had put a hit out on her.
Flirting should have been the last thing on my mind, but the knee-jerk reaction to form a connection, a bond, something Inara could remember me by took over. It wasn’t my finest moment, but it wasn’t my worst either, so maybe there’s still hope we can make this marriage thing last for the year. Long enough for my application into OCS to be accepted.
Unable to help myself, I take a second look at the photo of Inara. She’s smiling brightly, brown eyes twinkling, and interest raises its dark head. Just like the first time I saw her at Shaken and Stirred, a restaurant down by the pier where Taya works. It had been my birthday, and though I’d already had company on my arm, I’d been momentarily distracted by the pretty little hostess who showed us to our table. At the time, she reminded me of the dolls my sisters used to play with growing up. Small and perfect, with ink-black curls traveling down the length of her back, and large, dark brown eyes that took a chunk out of my soul every time she glanced my way. The classic lines of her face and that plump mouth would have been distracting enough, but then she smiled and it had been like a one-two punch to the gut.
I shrug and toss the files onto the passenger’s seat, then crank the car, ignoring the strident groan the engine makes before it comes to life once more. So we got off to a bad start. That doesn’t make my new wife any less hot, or the two of us any less stuck together. Might as well make the most of it.
Still, I can’t help but grin, thinking about the expression on Inara’s face when she gets the news, probably any minute now. If only I could be a fly on the wall when she reads my name.
End of Excerpt