TITLE: Rank & File
SERIES: Anchor Point (#4)
COVER ARTIST: L.C. Chase
Independent Audiobook Awards Nominee - Romance (Narrator - Nick J. Russo)
Senior Chief Will Curtis is as straitlaced as they come. While his fellow Sailors have partied their way through their enlistments, he’s had his eye on the prize—making master chief and retiring after thirty years of service.
Lieutenant Brent Jameson is a Navy brat turned Annapolis grad. He’s lived and breathed the military his whole life, and he knows he’s destined for great things—once he’s done paying his dues at the bottom of the ladder.
When their paths cross, both men know better than to give in to temptation, but that doesn’t stop them. It also doesn’t keep them from coming back for more, even though being discovered would sink their careers. Something has to give—Will can retire, Brent can resign, or they’ll both face court-martial.
But there’s also the option neither wants to acknowledge: jump ship and walk away from each other instead of ending their careers over a fledgling relationship. And they should probably decide before they fall in love.
Chapter One - Will
I hated domestic calls. Most cops did, even if they hadn’t witnessed—or experienced firsthand—the things I had. Driving like a bat out of hell into base housing, I was nervous not only for myself, but for my younger masters-at-arms who were already on the scene. Who’d already called for backup.
I held the wheel tighter and gave the accelerator some more pressure. The MAs who’d called hadn’t given much detail over the radio. They’d requested assistance, and since I’d been in the area—closer to their location than the watch commander or anyone else—I’d headed their way.
Sometimes calls like that meant the MAs on scene were in over their heads. Domestics weren’t easy to defuse, and both patrols involved were relatively young and inexperienced with this type of call. MA3 Harvey hadn’t sounded panicked on the radio. Just uneasy. Like things hadn’t gone to shit yet, but he had a feeling they would and didn’t quite know what to do. That could mean anything from a pair of spouses who would not, despite repeated requests, calm down, up to and including someone getting violent. There’d been no mention of a weapon, so presumably we were just dealing with belligerence. Still, I went in with the assumption there was actual danger to my MAs, the people in the house, and myself.
Of course we were trained for this, but nothing ever quite prepared you for a domestic. Too many variables. Too many ways things could go south in a hurry. MA3 Harvey and his partner, MA2 Lee, were both levelheaded. If they needed help, this could be bad.
I slowed enough for my headlights to illuminate a street sign, and when I’d double-checked this was the right street, I hung a fast left. There was no need to check the address beyond that—base housing was row upon row of identical blue-trimmed white duplexes that were especially hard to distinguish from one another at night, but the patrol car parked on the curb was a dead giveaway.
I parked outside, radioed the watch commander to let her know I was on scene and heading inside, and cautiously approached the front door, which was wide open. Voices—a lot of angry, loud voices—spewed out onto the porch.
There was no point in trying to shout over them, but the MAs would hear their radios, so I told MA3 Harvey I was there. He responded that they were in the living room, and confirmed there were no weapons and everyone was accounted for.
With my hand on my Taser and the other close to my pistol, I went inside.
As soon as I saw the scene in the living room, I didn’t need anyone to explain what was going on.
A woman in a T-shirt and not much else was screaming at a man in blue digicam utilities, who was right in her face and giving as good as he got. Behind her was another man in a pair of jeans—only a pair of jeans—dabbing blood from the corner of his mouth. Another day, another cheating spouse in base housing. My favorite.
MA2 Lee and MA3 Harvey alternated between exchanging uneasy glances and trying to verbally defuse the situation. They both looked at me with dude, we’ve got nothing on their faces. The guy with the bloody mouth noticed me and watched me, eyebrows up in a look I recognized as someone who simultaneously hoped I’d intervene, and hoped I’d walk away and pretend I didn’t see anything. He was visibly rattled, and probably scared shitless that he was going to wear some handcuffs too. I couldn’t get a look at the husband’s face to confirm my suspicion, but it was rare for one guy to take a swing and the other to just sit back and take it. If the wife’s paramour had gone hands-on, he was getting his rights read too. Company policy.
I shifted my gaze from him to the couple, who were lighting into each other so viciously, they didn’t seem to be aware there was anyone in the room, never mind that another well-armed MA had entered the scene.
I cleared my throat, and when I spoke, the cop voice I’d honed for the better part of twenty years came out: “Sir. Ma’am.”
Two words, and the shouting stopped. The silence was so sudden, my ears rang. The couple stared at me, slack-jawed. The guy with the bloody mouth drew back a bit too.
While the shock was still raw and no one had had a chance to start shouting again, I took over the scene. “I’m separating everyone to give statements. Anything that comes out of anyone’s mouth from this moment on is going into a report. None of you”—I gestured at each of the non-MAs in the room—“so much as looks at each other, talks to each other, or goes into the same room as each other until I say so. Am I clear?”
Silent nods all around.
I turned to the husband. “Sir, I’m going to ask you to step outside with MA3 Harvey.”
“Outside?” He made a sweeping gesture. “Why should I leave my own house so they—”
His teeth snapped together.
I turned to MA3 Harvey. “Take him outside and get a statement.”
Harvey nodded and motioned for the husband to follow him. There was some more grumbling and a withering glance at his wife and her lover, but the man went outside.
“MA2 Lee.” I gestured at the wife. “Take her into the bedroom and do the same.”
Lee and the wife disappeared in seconds.
Leaving me with the paramour.
He sank into a chair, dabbing his lip again, and kept his gaze down.
Now that things were quiet, I studied him, trying to get a bead on him. He’d seemed kind of timid earlier, but I supposed anyone would in his situation. The husband had already slugged him after presumably catching him in bed with his wife. There were cops on the scene, tempers flaring, and—if he was military like his girlfriend’s husband—careers on the line. He had plenty to be nervous about.
My cop voice would be the opposite of helpful right now, so I shifted it down to something softer. “What’s your name?”
He didn’t meet my gaze. “Brent.”
“Brent . . .?”
He swallowed. “Jameson. Lieutenant Brent Jameson.”
No wonder he was nervous. I hadn’t had a chance to look at the scorned husband’s uniform, but this was enlisted housing. Not a good look for an officer to be busted in the bed of anyone’s wife, but there was just enough animosity between officers and enlisted that one nailing the other’s wife was insult to injury.
I cleared my throat again. “You want to go to medical and have that lip looked—”
“No. It’s fine.” Eyes down, he shook his head. “It’s one of those cuts that isn’t bad but bleeds like a motherfucker.”
I opened my mouth to ask how he got it—not that it took a rocket scientist to figure it out—but my radio crackled to life. The watch commander getting a status update while she was still en route. MA3 Harvey responded, so I turned down the volume on my radio and faced Lieutenant Jameson again.
He was already nervous and shaken, so having six feet of armed cop looming over him probably wouldn’t help. I took a seat on the sofa, sitting close enough to him that we didn’t need to raise our voices to hear each other, but keeping a comfortable distance between us.
I took my tiny green notepad out of my pocket and rested it on my knee. “I need you to tell me what happened.”
He swallowed, dabbing at his lip again. The bleeding had slowed, though a little had started to dry at the corner of his mouth. “I swear to God, I had no idea she was married.”
I tightened my jaw to keep from calling bullshit. Just because my ex-boyfriend’s last couple of side pieces had insisted on not knowing about me didn’t mean this guy really didn’t know he was the other guy.
At least he didn’t claim that she’d fed him the line about being in an open marriage. That was the oldest lie in the book for cheaters on base, and the oldest alibi for side pieces. Especially since there really were a lot of open marriages—on the down-low, of course, since that could get somebody court-martialed—but also plenty of not open marriages.
The second oldest lie was I’m not married, accompanied by the second oldest alibi—I didn’t know she was married.
Tone flat, I said, “You thought she lived in base housing by herself?” Which wasn’t necessarily out of the question—she could’ve been a single mom or something—but it was unusual.
He glared at me. Then he shifted uncomfortably, wringing his hands in his lap. “I didn’t think about it, okay? I was thinking with my dick, and . . .” He sighed. “Look, you don’t have to tell me I was an idiot. I know I was. Thing is, she told me she was single, and I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t pay attention to where we were, and I didn’t think anything was wrong until he came home and she freaked out. Then they started fighting, he wouldn’t let me leave, and—” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Fuck. I . . . This was not what I signed up for.”
“How did the two of you meet?”
He fidgeted again. “Tinder.”
“This your first time seeing her?”
My gut told me he was telling the truth. And, well, we saw this a lot. If we’d caught them in the middle of the day, then I’d have expected him to be at least suspicious that she had a husband who was at work. Then he’d have had the daylight to take in the evidence that was all around him, including the large framed wedding photo that was currently hanging on the wall about a foot above his head. But if they’d found each other on a hookup app, gone straight from the front door to the bedroom, and not paid attention to anything else, then yeah, I could see him being genuinely startled when her husband showed up.
So maybe my perception of him had been colored by my own past. He was nervous and shaken and probably more than a little humiliated, and he was not my cheating ex or one of the men he’d taken into our bed. I wasn’t being fair.
“What happened to your face?” I knew but needed him to tell me so it could go on paper.
He sucked his swelling lip into his mouth as if he’d forgotten it was bleeding. Color bloomed in his cheeks. “Uh . . .”
“Even if you hit him first,” I said quietly, “I need to know what happened so I can—”
“No! He didn’t hit me.”
I watched him calmly. It wasn’t unheard of for someone in his position to try to downplay what had happened. Sometimes out of a macho need to make sure no one thought he’d had his ass handed to him. Sometimes out of fear he’d be arrested too. “Did you hit him?”
“No. No, it was nothing like that.” He lifted his chin and met my gaze, his expression sheepish. “It was her. And totally accidental.”
I blinked. “Come again?”
“We . . .” He covered his face with his hands, but not before the red in his cheeks got even brighter. Then with a sigh, he dropped his hands to his lap again and looked at me with that resignation that meant he was tired of bullshitting and was about to tell me the truth. “When he came home, she panicked, and while we were, uh, getting untangled, she clocked me with her elbow.” He motioned toward his mouth. “Like I said, it was an accident.”
“Oh.” That was actually a hell of a relief, assuming her story lined up with his. If it did, then there’d be no assault charges. Less paperwork. Nobody leaving in handcuffs. It could also mean the husband hadn’t laid a hand on him yet, though that could change the second we let them back in the same room.
Brent sat back in the chair, pressed an elbow onto the armrest, and kneaded his temple. “Fuck.”
I studied him again, and admittedly, caught myself taking in more than his defeated posture. When I was at work, especially on a call, I never checked people out, but . . . Jesus. How often was I sitting across from someone this hot? It was probably because he was shirtless, and his light-brown hair was still tousled enough to make sure I was aware that he’d been in bed with someone very recently.
He was a bit young for me—probably mid-late twenties or so if he was a lieutenant, and with a slight baby face to go with it—but I could make an exception for someone with his smooth stomach and broad shoulders. No six-pack, which was actually my preference anyway, especially with my forties looming and time beginning to take its toll. I didn’t need an underwear model in my bed to remind me of everything I wasn’t.
I shook myself and tore my gaze away. The guy was straight, and I was here as a cop. Clearly I needed to go out and get laid ASAP, but now was not the time.
“This is going to get back to my command, isn’t it?” His voice was still filled with resignation.
“The responding patrols will file a report that there was a domestic dispute. And yes, a copy of that will be sent to your command.”
He flinched. “Shit.”
“But assuming no one requests a protective order and no charges are filed, that’s the extent of it. More of an FYI than anything.”
“Ugh. Great.” He wiped a hand over his face, then let his head fall back against the chair, and while he stared at the ceiling, I absolutely did not steal a look at his stretched neck.
Christ. I really do need to get laid.
I pulled my focus away from his throat, and glanced down at my notepad. Outside, I could hear agitated voices. “Will you be all right for a minute?”
Eyes closed, he nodded.
I got up and went out to the porch. MA3 Harvey stood at the foot of the steps, and the husband sat on the top one, shakily smoking a cigarette. The husband twisted around to look up at me, and in the warm light coming from the hallway behind me, there was some extra moisture in his eyes. His face was a little red too, and probably not for the same reasons Brent had changed colors a few times.
I met MA3 Harvey’s gaze, and lifted my eyebrows. You got this?
I responded with another nod, then went back inside, but I didn’t rejoin Brent. Instead, I followed the soft sounds of female voices to the bedroom, where I found MA2 Lee sitting on the edge of the bed. Beside her was the wife, who’d put on a pair of yoga pants, and like her husband, had also gone from screaming and angry to quietly crying. MA2 Lee and I had the same silent exchange I’d had outside with her partner, and I left the bedroom.
In the living room, Brent looked at me. “So, what happens now?”
“When my patrols are finished getting their statements, everyone will be free to go unless there’s a reason we should arrest someone.” I paused. “I would recommend that you not stay here after—”
“Ten steps ahead of you,” he muttered. “Just need to figure out how—” His features tightened. Then he closed his eyes again. “God, I am so stupid.”
I eased myself onto the sofa where I’d been earlier. “Something I should know?”
Brent laughed humorlessly. “Besides how much of an idiot I am?” He turned to me. “She wanted to meet up for drinks first. Soon as I got there, she said we should go back to her place, and insisted we take her car.” He rolled his eyes. “And there I was, thinking with my dick and not realizing she didn’t want my car in their driveway in case he showed up.” He gestured sharply in the general direction of the husband. “Fuck. You’d almost think she’s done this before.”
I bit back an unprofessional comment. I’d been a Navy cop for almost nineteen years. The cheating that happened within military marriages was eye-watering, and yeah, this particular wife probably had enough experience to know how to cover her tracks. Or, at least, to try to cover her tracks. In fact, I’d have bet money that the only reason she and Brent had been busted tonight was a nosy neighbor tipping off the husband. Wouldn’t be the first time, and wouldn’t be the last.
Brent drummed his fingers on the armrest and looked right at me. His blue eyes were so intense, it took me a second to realize he’d spoken.
“Sorry, come again?”
He eyed me, but didn’t seem annoyed. Curious, if anything. “I asked when I could get out of here.”
“Oh. Let me check in with my MAs again and see if they’re finished.” I pushed myself back to my feet. “Sounded like they were wrapping things up.”
I ordered the spouses to stay put. Nobody put up a fight. The husband lit another cigarette, and the wife buried her attention in her phone.
I took my patrols in the kitchen, and everything checked out. The wife corroborated Brent’s story, and the husband had come home after a neighbor had texted him. Damn. Either I was getting good at this, or it was just another case of base housing déjà vu. Nobody wanted to press charges. Nobody needed to go to medical. The husband was going to go crash at a friend’s house. The wife was going to stay here. Neither she nor Brent had any desire to speak to each other, which led me to believe their story really did check out. They were strangers, not lovers who’d finally been caught.
MA2 Lee took the wife into another room so her husband could pack an overnight bag, and she handed me Brent’s shirt, shoes, and jacket.
While Brent was tying his shoes, the husband suddenly walked into the living room, MA3 Harvey hot on his heels.
“Wait,” Harvey said. “He’s not ready for—”
“Sir.” I put a hand up and put myself between Brent and the husband. “I need you to wait a minute.”
The husband sighed heavily. “Look, I don’t . . .” He made an exhausted motion toward Brent. “I just want to get my shit and go. I don’t have any beef with him.”
Brent and the husband’s eyes locked; there was no hostility. They both seemed tired, defeated, and more than a little humiliated.
Softly, Brent said, “I’m sorry. I had no idea.”
The husband nodded. “Yeah. I know.”
They exchanged a look. Then Brent got up, moving like it took all the effort in the world, and stepped away from the chair so the husband could continue toward the bedroom without them rubbing elbows. The husband walked past without another word.
“Sorry,” MA3 Harvey said. “He got away from—”
“It’s okay.” I paused. “Can you and MA2 Lee take it from here?”
He nodded. “Yeah, we’ve got it. Thanks, Senior.” He followed the husband.
I turned to Brent. “Where’s your car?”
He swallowed. “By McCade’s. Outside Gate 4.”
I motioned for him to follow me. “Come on. I’ll drop you off.”