TITLE: Sink or Swim
SERIES: Anchor Point (#8)
COVER ARTIST: L.C. Chase
WINNER - Rainbow Award - Best Gay Erotic Romance
When need meets fear, can two very different men find common ground?
Alhazar Bukhari spent his Navy career in the closet. Now he’s retired, divorced, and hungry for the love he’s never had a chance to experience. He tries to put his faith in Allah to bring the right man into his life, but it’s hard to be patient after all this time.
Chaplain Dylan Pedersen spends his days counseling Sailors, and his nights with men he doesn’t know. Months after finally escaping an abusive relationship, he’s terrified of anything more than a physical connection. Maybe it’s a sin, but he’s too lonely to not let men into his bed, and too scared to let them into his heart.
When Alhazar’s civilian job brings him aboard the USS Fort Stevens, and his daily prayers bring him into Dylan’s chapel, the chemistry is instantaneous. Sex and friendship quickly evolve into more, but Dylan’s too haunted by his recent past to be the man Alhazar wants. Alhazar needs love, Dylan needs time, and if they can’t find some sort of balance, they’ll sink before they ever have a chance to swim.
Captain Mark Thomas stared at my desk for the longest time, looking for all the world like I’d just asked him to make some critical call in battle. Eyes wide. Teeth digging into his lower lip. Deep crevices across his forehead. In his lap he held his ball cap—the one embroidered with USS Fort Stevens—and he idly thumbed the bill.
Hands folded in my lap, I watched him across my cramped office for a moment. Finally, I said, “You don’t have to decide today.”
He exhaled, rubbing his hand over his face. “I know. And I don’t know why I’m stressing so hard about it.”
I smiled. “Weddings are stressful.”
“Yeah, but I mean . . .” He laughed softly. “We’re already engaged. We’re doing this. It should be downhill from here, right?”
“In theory.” Which was why we’d been sitting here for an hour, sweat beading on his forehead as we went over options for his upcoming wedding. I nudged the thick folder toward him. “Take this home and talk it over with Diego. When you’ve reached a consensus, let me know.”
Mark let out another long breath and nodded as he picked up the folder. “I will. And I should . . .” He looked at his watch and swore, then cringed. “Sorry.”
I chuckled. “I see Sailors all day long. It’ll take more than some cursing to bother me.”
“Well, yeah, but I probably shouldn’t . . . you know.” He gestured at the pale-gray bulkhead separating us from the ship chapel’s sanctuary. “Here.”
“I won’t tell if you won’t.”
That got a laugh out of him, which seemed to loosen some of the tension in his shoulders. He pushed himself up out of the chair, tucked the folder under his arm, and reached across the desk. “Thanks for all of this, Padre.”
I rose too and shook his hand. “Don’t mention it. That’s why I’m here.”
We exchanged smiles, and Mark left. Watching him go, I was still smiling. His wedding was coming up soon, and he was all nerves. Stressing about every detail. Worried sick things wouldn’t go the way we’d planned. His fiancé was as laid-back as could be about the whole thing, so hopefully Diego could talk Mark down this evening. He was good at that.
I sat again and leaned back in my chair, staring at the one the ship’s XO had just vacated. Mark had been in here a lot, especially while we’d been deployed a few months ago. First tying himself in knots over the idea of, well, tying the knot. Then needing reassurance before popping the question (which was probably why Diego had beaten him to it). More recently, wringing his hands over the actual wedding. We’d done some counseling sessions too, and I had no doubt he was genuinely ready and eager to marry Diego. Their relationship was solid, and whenever they’d been in here together, it was obvious they were deeply in love and fully committed to each other. All it took was a shared glance between them—their devotion was visible to the naked eye.
Mark was just worried about logistics, which I’d gently suggested was him projecting his nerves about marriage. After his first marriage had failed so spectacularly, he was—and last week had finally admitted he was—scared to death he’d find a way to torpedo this one.
Shaking my head, I chuckled in the stillness. I didn’t imagine he and Diego had much to worry about in that department. They were both more than willing to put in the work to keep their relationship on the rails, and—
Beyond the tiny room separating my office from the chapel, boots clomped on the deck, coming into the sanctuary from the passageway.
I got up, straightened my green digicam blouse, and headed out to see if the new arrival needed anything. It might’ve been someone coming in to pray or just have a little quiet time alone. Might’ve even been Father Jacobs back early from his meeting, or someone looking for me or him.
I stepped out into the sanctuary.
The new arrival wasn’t Father Jacobs. The man was wearing gray coveralls—the kind a lot of the civilian contractors wore—and had a black backpack slung over his shoulder. I didn’t think I’d seen him before, but that was hardly unusual on a ship with over a thousand people plus contractors.
“Can I help you?”
He jumped when I spoke, then turned around.
And it was my turn to jump.
Whoa. Those eyes.
They were a deep, warm brown, framed by lashes that went on forever beneath gently curving black eyebrows. It was hard to say if his cheekbones really were that prominent or if they stood out because of the heavy stubble darkening his sharp jaw. He obviously worked out, and he had shoulders for days, and he was . . . wow. I wasn’t one to use the word lightly, but even in those coveralls, this man was stunning.
“Uh, hi.” He cleared his throat and brushed a few strands of black hair out of his face, ruffling it just right to let some flecks of silver catch the light. He was definitely a civilian, given the length of his hair—not long enough to tie back, but almost tickling his collar.
Probably long enough to grab and—
I stifled a cough, hoping my face wasn’t coloring as I tamped those thoughts away. “Hi. What can I do for you?”
Adjusting the backpack on his shoulder, he met my gaze with a hint of shyness. “You’re the chaplain?”
I tapped the cross on my lapel as I stepped fully into the sanctuary. “Chaplain Pedersen.” I extended my hand. “You can call me Dylan. Or ‘Chaplain’ is fine.” Chuckling as we shook hands, I added, “Half the ship calls me Padre.” And I was rambling, which was so not like me.
He smiled, and I swore that made the color of his eyes even warmer. “Alhazar.”
“Alhazar?” I asked to make sure I was saying it right.
“Yeah. I, um . . .” Alhazar shifted his weight and glanced at the door. “Listen, I just started working on the ship, and I wondered if . . .” He dropped his gaze for a second. “I’m not all that comfortable doing my daily prayers out . . .” He motioned toward the door. “In the rest of the ship. It was one thing when I had space in a berthing or the shop where I worked, but I don’t live on a ship anymore and my crew doesn’t have a permanent space.”
“So you’d like to use the chapel?”
He looked at me through those long lashes and nodded. “If that’s all right.”
“Of course. We have a number of Muslim Sailors who do the same thing. In fact, Father Jacobs and one of our Muslim Sailors went through on the last deployment and made sure the sanctuary doesn’t have any statues or paintings that might be a problem. Nothing in your line of sight or facing in the direction you’ll be praying, regardless of which way the ship is heading.”
He blinked in surprise. “That’s great. Perfect. And thanks. I didn’t know if, um, being a civilian . . .”
“The chapel’s open to anyone who’s on board. I even have family members in here from time to time.”
“Oh. That’s good to know.” He tapped the backpack strap. “So would it be too much trouble for me to leave my prayer mat here? I don’t really have a place to keep it on the ship.”
“Sure, no problem.” I motioned for him to follow me, and headed into the tiny room between the chapel and the office I shared with Father Jacobs. Over my shoulder, I added, “There’s almost always a chaplain around, but even if we’re not, this part of the office stays unlocked.”
“You’re a lifesaver.”
I faced him, intending to say . . . something. Words evaporated on my tongue, though, because the tiny room was forcing us to stand really close together. Like really close. It was always a bit on the cozy side in here—even more so than in the office—but right now, with this beautiful black-haired man holding my gaze like that, it felt like the tiniest compartment on the entire boat. And that was saying something.
I gulped. “Um.” Air. Words. Professionalism. I coughed into my fist. “If I’m counseling someone in there”—I gestured at the door separating the office from this smaller space—“the hatch will be shut, but this room is always open.” I gestured at some metal shelves behind him. “Feel free to leave it on one of those. No one will mess with it, I promise.”
Alhazar looked in the direction I indicated, and some more tension left his posture and his features. “Great. Thank you.” He opened the backpack and pulled out a tightly rolled green and gold prayer rug. He placed that on a shelf beside a small stack of weathered hymnals, and put a blue leather-bound Qur’an on top of the rug. He dug around in the bag again, and withdrew a strand of black prayer beads—misbaha, I thought they were called—which he set beside the Qur’an.
As he zipped up the bag and slung it over his shoulder again, he turned to me, meeting my eyes. “Thank you. I really appreciate it.”
“Don’t mention it. The chapel’s here for all faiths.”
He gave a quiet huff of half-hearted laughter. “On paper, maybe. In practice, I’d say that depends on the ship. And the chaplain.” He looked at me, brow pinched.
Sighing, I nodded. “I know. I’ve had a lot of discussions with chaplains who don’t welcome Muslims, and with Muslims who don’t feel welcome. It’s . . . an issue. I won’t pretend it isn’t.”
He studied me. “You didn’t even blink when I asked. So you’re . . . You really don’t mind Muslims here.”
“Absolutely not. I don’t have to share someone’s faith to respect it, and I’m here to give anyone who needs it a place to practice.” I shrugged. “I’m also here to counsel, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I turned away Sailors who needed help just because they didn’t believe the same as me.”
Alhazar smiled a little. “That shouldn’t be as unusual as it is.”
“It’s not as bad as it used to be.”
I expected a sarcastic snort, but he nodded. “No, you’re right. During my first enlistment, and especially after 9/11, it wasn’t great. The last few years I was in, though? It was . . . better and worse, I guess? Like some people were still Islamophobes, but others were figuring out we’re just people like them.”
“So you’re former enlisted, then?” That wasn’t really a surprise. Most of the civilian contractors were retired or discharged. And he had said he’d lived in a berthing at some point.
“Yeah. I retired four years ago.”
“Lucky you.” I laughed dryly. “I’ve got another two before I’m eligible to retire.”
“Eh, you’ll miss it more than you think.”
Alhazar shrugged. “It’s weird. I figured I’d retire and never look back. No more deployments. No more being away from my family. No more dealing with all the rank bullshit.” He paused. “Er, the rank . . . stuff.”
I laughed. It would never fail to amuse me how sheepish people got when they swore inside the chapel. Especially Sailors. Or ex-Sailors, as it were.
He went on. “But all the hierarchy stupidity?” He rolled his eyes. “The civilian world’s infested with it too. We just don’t wear ranks.”
“No deployments, though, right?”
“Thankfully, no.” His smile turned my insides to liquid. “My son graduates from high school next year, and I don’t have to worry about missing it.”
“It is. I missed so much of both kids growing up. It’s actually kind of a novelty to be there for things, you know?”
I grimaced. “It shouldn’t be, but such is life in the Navy, right?”
“Yep.” He took his phone out of the hip pocket of his coveralls, and I thought he might be checking the time so he could bow out. Instead, he swiped a couple of times before turning the phone so I could see a photo. “I think I was more excited than he was that I got to be there when he went to his first homecoming dance last fall.”
The pride in his voice and his smile was utterly adorable.
And so were the two kids in the photo. The one on the left was obviously Alhazar’s son. A little lankier, but the same black hair, same dark eyes, and same broad smile.
His date was a skinny blond boy with an equally wide smile that showed off a mouthful of braces. In front of a fireplace covered in framed photos, they stood together, each with an arm slung around the other’s waist and with their joined hands in front of them. The classic kids posing for their parents before heading to a dance photo. I had a couple of those in my own wallet, but was hit with a pang of envy that Alhazar had actually been present when this photo was snapped.
“They’re a cute pair,” I said. “No dad should have to miss that.” But such is the military life. Especially the divorced military life.
“It made up for some of the other things I had to miss.” He glanced down at the phone again, and blushed a little as he pocketed it. “I’m sorry. You probably have things to do besides—”
“No, it’s all right. With as much as I missed of my kids’ lives . . . I get it.”
His eyebrows rose. “How many kids?”
“Three daughters. They live with their mother in San Diego, though. I don’t see them as much as I’d like to.”
“Oh.” Alhazar swallowed. “I’m sorry. That’s . . . that’s really rough.”
I shrugged tightly. “It is what it is. They’ll be here this summer, and we keep in contact as much as possible. You have to wonder how anyone survived deployments before Skype or email.”
“No kidding. That dance picture? My ex-wife was deployed when that was taken. We FaceTimed with her, so she didn’t completely miss it, but it’s not the same, you know?”
“Definitely not. So your ex is in the service too?”
“She retired last year.” He paused like he might add something to that thought, but let it go. “At least we were never deployed at the same time.”
“Thank God for that.”
A subtle smile flickered across his lips, and he glanced at the clock on the wall above our heads. Sighing, he faced me. “I should get back to work before the foreman comes looking for me. Thanks again. For letting me . . .” He motioned toward the rolled-up prayer rug.
“You’re welcome. It was nice meeting you.”
We shook hands again, and Alhazar left, taking with him all the oxygen that had been occupying this small space.
I went around my desk and dropped back into my chair, staring at the doorway with my jaw slack and my heart pounding. I didn’t think I’d ever seen a more attractive man than Alhazar. From the moment I’d laid eyes on him, I’d been enthralled. Then talking to him . . . Lord. He was sweet. A little shy. An obviously devoted father to an openly queer son.
Where were men like him when I was looking for someone to date?
Snatched up by other people, obviously. Though he was apparently divorced. Not that it mattered since odds were he was probably straight.
But men like him existed, which gave me hope.
And after eight long years with a man who’d made me pray for deployments just so I could be away from him and the hell he’d turned our home into?I needed that hope.