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Liar’s Waltz


Becky Black


Published by Becky Black at Smashwords


Copyright 2010 Becky Black


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Liar’s Waltz


Lieutenant Greg Matthews took a transfer to space station Saira to make a fresh start. But a rogue military intelligence officer has discovered the closeted Greg’s secret and forces him to spy on Karl Webster, the owner of the last gay bar on Saira. The disapproving military authorities want Karl’s bar closed, and he’s feeling the heat. He thinks his new lover is an ally in his fight, but Greg is reporting on all of Karl’s plans to save the bar. Despite his fear that Greg is too jittery and unstable to bother with, Karl wants him too much to give him up. He can’t guess the real reason behind Greg’s anxiety—fear of what will happen when Karl discovers his deception. As the campaign against Karl, escalates Greg becomes ever more reluctant to deceive the man he’s falling in love with. The inevitable revelation shatters their relationship and their lives as the blackmailer takes drastic action to silence Karl. Greg must sacrifice everything he’s been trying to protect to undo the damage and save Karl.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

About the Author


Chapter One


Lieutenant Greg Matthews stepped out of the air lock of the starship he’d served on for close to two years and walked away without a backward glance.

In front of him lay the docking sector of Saira Station, and he had to stop as he entered the cavernous space, suddenly dizzy. It had been several months since his last shore leave, so he’d need to readjust to open spaces after all that time in the confined conditions aboard ship. He had time, though. He wasn’t on shore leave now; this was his new home.

Several electric cabs waited at a nearby stand. Greg pulled himself together and took one.

“The base, sir?” the cabbie asked. A safe bet, since Greg was in uniform and stowing a couple of duffel bags under the seat.

“Yes, thank you.”

It took a good twenty minutes to reach his destination, though the tiny vehicle zipped along the wide thoroughfares between the docking sector and the military base. Greg knew the base filled almost a fifth of the station. He paid the cabbie and walked up to the gatehouse. Beyond that he could see a mix of freestanding buildings and ones built into the bulkheads, several levels high. He could almost fancy he’d see clouds and a blue sky high above if he looked up.

“Can I help you, sir?”

Greg brought his attention back to the gate and the military policeman on sentry duty.

“Lieutenant Matthews. Just arrived.” He handed his ID over. The MP scanned it, then looked closely at Greg, whose hands started to sweat. Calm down. He’s just comparing the picture. After a few seconds the MP handed the ID back.

“Thank you, sir. You’re to report straight to Admiral Bell’s office. If you leave your bags here, I’ll have someone take them to your quarters.”

Straight to the admiral? Bell commanded the five thousand men on this base and the fleet of ships that carried at least as many. Ten thousand men under his command, and he wanted to meet one lowly lieutenant transferring in?

There were two likely reasons why he might, and Greg had to hope it would turn out to be the more innocent one. Because if it was the other… No. It couldn’t be. In that case he’d be reporting to the provost marshal, not the admiral.

He shook himself, trying to head off the rampant paranoia. Keeping his face neutral—as if he met admirals every day—he left his bags with the sentry and walked into the base. A few minutes of following the directions in his Link, and he found Bell’s office suite in the base headquarters—a freestanding building in a wide, open plaza. A clerk told him to take a seat; the admiral would be with him in a moment. Greg didn’t sit but instead walked to the window overlooking a boulevard that stretched to the main gate half a kilometer away.

Before Greg had a chance to work himself into too tight a knot wondering why Bell wanted to see him, the clerk spoke.

“You can go through now, Lieutenant.” Untouched and silent, the high doors into Bell’s office swung open.

Greg straightened his jacket, cleared his throat, and tucked his cap under his left arm. He entered the office and marched smartly up to Admiral Bell’s desk, then stopped to snap off his best salute. As salutes went, it might be not only his best, but one of the best. He’d been practicing his salute since the day he gained voluntary control of his limbs.

“Lieutenant Matthews reporting as ordered, sir!”

“Welcome to Saira, Lieutenant,” the admiral said. He was still quite young for the rank, not yet fifty. “Still a hungry man,” Greg’s father had said. “At ease.”

Greg shifted into the at-ease stance, wishing his heart would stop pounding so hard. Bell was smiling, so there probably wasn’t any kind of problem.

“Don’t look so nervous, Lieutenant. I just wanted to greet the son of my old friend personally.”

The words lifted a weight from Greg’s shoulders, and he had to fight the urge to sag with relief.

“My father asked me to pass on his regards, sir.”

“How is the old rogue?”

Though Greg’s father and Bell had served together years ago, they weren’t close friends, as far as Greg knew. Certainly not close enough for affectionate insults like “old rogue.” But he made a diplomatic answer.

“He’s in excellent health, sir.”

“Good. Always good to hear news from back home.”

Greg himself hadn’t been back to Earth for fifteen months. Any news he had would be as stale as a ship’s stores a year out of port. But the door opening for the clerk to bring in a tray of coffee saved him from having to find an answer.

They sat on leather-upholstered chairs that were comfortable enough to fall asleep in, but Greg stayed on the edge of his. A lieutenant should not relax in the company of an admiral, especially not one whose friendly greeting could be no more than politicking. Admiral Matthews had taken up a seat on the senior promotions board a few months ago. It couldn’t hurt Bell’s career ambitions to take a tactical personal interest in his old shipmate’s youngest son.

“And your brothers?” Bell went on. “All men to watch, I hear.”

“Yes, sir. John just took command of the—”

Chicago. Yes, I heard. He’s done well.”

“Well” hardly covered it, in Greg’s opinion. His eldest brother had been a captain for only three years but had distinguished himself enough to earn command of the newly launched Chicago, the most advanced battleship in the fleet.

“I admit I was a little surprised, though, when I saw your transfer request come across my desk,” Bell said. “I thought all the Matthews boys were starship officers in the blood.”

“My father, ah, expressed his surprise too, sir.” At length. “But you’re doing some cutting-edge development work here that I wouldn’t have the chance to get involved with out in the field. Though, of course, I love being a starship officer.” That last part seemed the right thing to say. The expected thing. Greg always tried to say the expected thing.

“We’re not as glamorous as a warship, for sure, but we need good officers too. I’m pleased to have you join our team here, Lieutenant. I know a man of your potential will make a great contribution.”

“Thank you, sir. I intend to make the most of the opportunity.”

“Good man.” He rose, and Greg quickly put down his coffee cup and stood too. When Bell offered his hand for a shake, Greg hoped he wouldn’t read too much into Greg’s sweaty palm. A mere lieutenant, even one from an influential family, might be expected to be nervous meeting an admiral. Entirely natural.

“Dismissed, Mr. Matthews. Go find your quarters, and good luck with your new duties. I’ll be following your progress with interest.”

He left the admiral’s suite and breathed more easily once he’d exited the building, crammed as it was with senior officers who would all be happy to arrest him personally if they knew his secret.

But none of them would find it out. Those days were gone. Whatever story he told Bell, or his father, about cutting-edge systems development, Greg had come to Saira for one reason only.

To become someone else.

* * *

Overcrowding had its advantages.

Such as a good excuse to share a table with a hot guy, like the one Karl noticed as he carried his coffee cup around, searching for a seat. The hot guy leaned on the rail of the coffee shop’s veranda, apparently absorbed in the view of the heavy cargo docks.

“Mind if I share?” Karl asked, making the young man turn. The initial irritation on his face cleared in a flash, and he nodded, eyes wide.

“Oh yes—I mean, no, that’s fine.” He waved at the other chair. “Help yourself.”

Karl would have liked to help himself to more than the chair, but he’d have to work on that. He sat down with a smile and a “thanks.” His tablemate looked at him for a few more seconds, then turned back to the view. Karl took in the view too, but not of the docks. Blond hair, nice profile, late twenties. A lean body, with slim hips Karl would like to slide his hands around. He hoped he’d get to check out the legs.

Oh, drink your coffee, he told himself. He picked it up, along with his Link, and started reading the station news. But his concentration lasted only seconds before he took another look at the man. His eyes were blue, his skin pale, but more creamy than sallow. His hair was short, almost military-style.

Probably no almost about it. This one had junior officer written all over him. Which by Karl’s rules usually meant potential trouble—stay away. Still, he could look.

So could the blond. He didn’t even turn his head, but his gaze flickered to Karl and away again when he met Karl’s eyes. Hiding a smile, Karl bent over his Link again. Caught you catching me. He read a couple of news stories, glanced up again, and this time caught the man looking first, his head turned now, not just a sly glance out of the corner of his eye. The man’s lips parted in a slight gasp when Karl smiled, and he quickly turned away—back to that oh-so-fascinating view of the docks.

Maybe it was fascinating. Karl had grown used to the slow ballet of the giant cargo ships maneuvering, but newcomers to Saira Station often found it awe inspiring.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Karl said, making the young man turn to him with a wary expression. “The size of them, I mean.”

“I’m used to seeing them in space,” the man said. “The scale isn’t as obvious there. Seeing them so close like this makes me realize how huge they really are.”

“Leviathan,” Karl said. “Like whales,” he added when he saw the question in the man’s eyes. “Are you new to the station?”

“I just arrived a week ago.”

“Passing through or staying?”

“Staying.”

Damn. Not so good. Passing through meant he’d be more likely to take a chance on a casual encounter—as would Karl if it meant Mr. Potential Trouble would be gone in a couple of days. But staying made that a much riskier proposition for both of them.

“You’re a resident, right?” the man said.

“What gave that away?”

“You’ve got one of those station-model Links.” He gestured at the device Karl had put down on the table. Observant. Only permanent residents tended to have that particular model, which was only sold here.

“You’re right.” Karl held out his hand across the table. “Karl Webster.”

After a brief hesitation the man returned the shake.

“Greg.”

No last name offered. Interesting.

“Welcome to Saira, Greg. If you’re staying, you should get a Link.” He turned the device around and pushed it across the table. “Here, take a look.” He didn’t push it far, so if Greg wanted to take a look he’d have to lean forward over the table until they were bare inches apart.

After another brief hesitation Greg did so, moving close enough that Karl could smell the simple, clean scents of soap and shampoo coming from him. No cologne. Another clue he might be an officer—the military considered men who wore cologne somewhat suspicious. Greg smiled nervously, and Karl had to control an urge to close the rest of the distance and claim those lips.

The strength of the urge surprised him. He was thirty-three, not a horny teenager. He could appreciate good-looking men who crossed his path without wanting to jump them, throw them across the table, and kiss and…

Control yourself, he ordered. Yes, he wanted Greg, but he saw tension in the nervous smile, the set of his shoulders. Caution required. Subtlety. He could do subtle. Usually.

“So yeah,” he said. “If you want to find restaurants, bars, accommodation, news, it’s all on the network.” He should have paid more attention to the Link and less to Greg, because Greg laughed suddenly when Karl’s random flicking brought up the opening times for a ladies-only sauna. The sound of the laugh and the slight relaxation of Greg’s wariness made Karl’s mouth suddenly feel parched.

“Sorry about that. Not entirely relevant.” He flicked through some more menus, taking a deep breath, regaining his cool. Once he got his bearings again, he found the listings for transient accommodations. Short-stay rooms for travelers between ships or anyone else who needed a bed for a few hours.

“This place is nice.” He tapped the details, watching Greg’s face for his reaction. Did he understand what Karl was suggesting? “Clean. Good rates.” Greg looked up, meeting Karl’s eyes for only a second before his gaze slid back to the docks.

“Discreet?” So close to a whisper Karl barely heard it.

“No ID required.” Under the table, Karl nudged his foot against Greg’s. A happy accident. Very happy. Greg shivered and gave a small gasp.

“Okay.” The word came out with the gasp. Greg’s gaze was still on the docks, not on Karl.

Remembering the whispered question about discretion and seeing the tension in his posture, Karl knew he had to move carefully or risk scaring Greg off. He slid back slowly in his seat, needing the distance to think straight without the distraction of Greg’s scent and heat. For a couple of minutes they both watched an especially huge freighter kiss its nose to an air lock. Grapplers snaked out to secure it.

“Show’s over,” Karl said. “Ready to go?” Greg nodded and rose.

Karl let Greg lead him outside. For one thing, he feared he’d look behind to see Greg had simply vanished—as if he were no more than a dream. And for another, the view. Greg glanced back at him a couple of times, first with smiles and then, as they stepped out of the door, with a frown and a suddenly alarmed expression. Karl looked around, wondering what he’d seen, but there wasn’t anything else to make Greg alarmed. Just Karl. And he recognized the follow-up expression that appeared a second later.

The “what the hell am I doing?” expression.

Oh no. Not now. Don’t lose your nerve now. He stepped closer, hoping his nearness turned Greg on as much as his turned Karl on. Freshly showered after the gym and a massage with a sandalwood-scented lotion, Karl knew he smelled good. The midbrown skin of his muscular arms gleamed under the warm lighting of the coffee shop’s exterior.

Knowing Greg could change his mind at any second, Karl tried to move things along.

“Why don’t we grab a cab?” He took Greg’s arm.

That proved to be a mistake. Greg pulled away instantly and took several steps back. “Wait, I just remembered.” He pulled out a device similar to Karl’s Link and thumbed the screen. “I’ve got an appointment. Yeah. Right now. I have to go.” He shoved the reader back in his pocket.

“Wait…”

“Sorry. Um, another time.” The look in Greg’s eyes told of an agonized choice, but he made the choice, and he walked away.

Karl stared after him. What the hell? How did that go bad so fast? Should he chase Greg and ask for his number? Maybe there could actually be another time. But no. He had his dignity. So he watched Greg leaving. He wasn’t waiting for him to look back. Absolutely not. He just happened to be looking in that direction. If Greg should happen to look back…

Greg looked back. Too far away to see his expression clearly, Karl hoped he saw regret, but knew that was probably just wishful thinking on his part. Only a glance and then Greg hurried on, swallowed by the crowd that filled the wide thoroughfares of the station’s central core. Well, if Greg did regret it, he had Karl’s name and could soon find him on the station network. Then what? Heat Karl up and dump cold water on him again? No, thanks.

Karl strode away. Forget Greg. There were a ton of hot guys on this station who’d just love to spend an afternoon with him. Screw Greg. Or rather…choose a different word there. The mental picture that one evoked could only lead to trouble.

Maybe Greg did have an appointment? People had appointments all the time. Yes, and maybe it was with his wife. Or his commanding officer. That reader he’d pulled out was definitely military-issue.

Forget him. Karl stepped into an elevator in the bank that ran through the central core. He chose a smaller one, preferring to avoid the crowds in the big elevators that even took the electric cabs and other small vehicles. He might as well go to work early. Alone in the elevator, he imagined Greg there with him, pressing him against the wall, kissing him. Both of them hungry and urgent. Greg dropping to his knees…

No. He had to put Greg out his mind. He’d had failed pickups before, so why was this one any different? The elevator doors opened, and he realized he’d requested the level with the transient accommodations—where he’d planned to go with Greg. His mind filled with the images, sounds, and sensations of what might have been. Muttering a curse, he stepped back inside and asked for level 0.

Forget Greg.

Karl walked past the bars and clubs clustered on the lowest deck of Saira before the purely industrial sectors. Busy brooding about Greg, he didn’t look anywhere but ahead until he reached a club with the name ETERNITY in silver on black above the door.

“Afternoon, boss,” the doorman said. Karl nodded to him and forced a smile as he stepped inside.

The lunch rush was almost over, and only a few people sat eating at the tables arranged near the terrace doors. More people sat or stood in the bar itself or out on the terrace, holding drinks. Men mostly. Idling away the afternoon, seeing and being seen. Perhaps hoping for what Karl had hoped for with Greg.

The sight of a blue police uniform at one table prompted him to walk over there and sit opposite a young woman eating an enormous club sandwich.

“Officer Ramsey,” he said, “didn’t your mother ever teach you that it isn’t ladylike to eat something bigger than your own head?”

“I think I’ll be okay as long as I don’t try to eat anything bigger than your head, Captain Fancies Himself.”

“I do not fancy myself,” Karl protested. Officer Ramsey—Deb—snorted around another bite of sandwich and then swallowed.

“Then you’re the only gay fella on the station who doesn’t.”

Karl could have snorted then too. After what just happened with Greg he could present her with evidence to the contrary.

“Weren’t you in here yesterday?” He knew she rarely ate lunch in the same place two days in a row. She liked to keep an eye on all the businesses on her beat.

“I’ve just been in the Bay”—Deb jerked a thumb over her shoulder in the vague direction of the nightclub next door—“taking statements. They had some trouble last night.”

Karl nodded, recalling the commotion. “It obviously gave you an appetite.” Besides the sandwich, she had a piece of cheesecake waiting its turn.

“Who can resist Esmé’s cheesecake? Speaking of Esmé, you might want to go show your face in the kitchen.” A more serious look came into her eyes. “I’d hate to end up labeling her meat cleaver as exhibit A.”

Now what? Karl left Deb to her lunch. As he pushed through the swing doors into the kitchen, he noticed the absence of the usual lively banter from the staff. That couldn’t bode well. The subdued staff were clearing up from lunch. The head chef, Esmé Foster, worked at the butcher’s block, cutting meat with the cleaver Deb had mentioned. She handled it in a marked manner, directing glares at the cause of the disturbing quiet in the kitchen—a white-coated official who was closely inspecting the interior of an oven.

“Didn’t we have a health inspection last month?” Karl asked Esmé in a low voice.

“Yes, we did.” The cleaver fell again, slicing through bone and making Karl wince. For a woman close to retirement, Esmé had strong wrists.

“Is he going to find anything?”

“He certainly is not. Ever since all this trouble started, I’ve been extra careful. You could eat off the floor in here.”

Karl nodded his thanks and walked over to the official. “Has there been a complaint?”

The man straightened up and stepped back, slight alarm on his face. Karl took a step back himself, not intending to intimidate. The official looked relieved, then rather sheepish, as if he knew his presence had nothing to do with guarding the residents of Saira Station from unsanitary kitchens.

“I’m Karl Webster, the owner. Has there been a complaint about our food?” He doubted it. He made no claims to run a gourmet restaurant here, only serving short-order meals in the afternoon session and focusing on the bar in the evening. But what they did offer, he was proud of. They were always recommended highly in the station’s listings.

“I couldn’t say, Mr. Webster. I just go where I’m assigned.”

“Have you found any problems?”

“Not in my kitchen.” Esmé’s muttered words made them both glance at her and her cleaver.

“None, sir. I’d happily eat here myself.”

That counted as high praise from a health inspector, Karl knew, and he basked in the glow of it until his next thought brought him back down with a bump. A less-fair-minded official would come next time. One who would find a problem whether one existed or not. One who might even resort to walking in with roaches in his pockets.

But for now they were okay. Esmé had even started to smile again at the man’s praise, though she still wielded the cleaver meaningfully. Karl left them to it and went to his office.

The first message he read when he checked his in-box was a buyout offer.

A damn good one too, from the owner of the club next door. So good that he didn’t believe it for a second. He spent a few minutes trying to compose a reply, then gave up, frustrated with looking for a more polite way to say what the hell? Better to reply in person, he decided, and he walked next door.

They really had had trouble last night. He’d always found the name of the neighboring club, Butterfly Bay, rather silly and the decor tacky. But even he had admired the window that ran the length of the club’s front, etched and painted with hundreds of butterflies. Sheets of plastic covered the space the window had occupied, and its remains lay in shards on the floor, inside and out. He stopped and shook his head.

“It’s a damn shame,” said the doorman guarding the entrance. “That thing was a work of art.”

“Hi, Ray. Yes. It’s a shame.” Karl stirred the brilliantly colored pieces of glass with his foot. “What happened?”

“One bastard tossed another bastard right through it. Bastards.”

“Military?” Karl asked.

“What do you think?” The cynical tone of bitter experience. “You still getting much trouble in your place?”

“I’ve known quieter times. Is your boss around?”

“Yeah, she’s in. Go on through.” Ray held the door open to allow Karl inside, where he found Lyssa, the owner, supervising cleanup and repairs.

“Had a rough night?” he asked.

“Lively.” She sighed. “You saw what happened to the window?”

“Yes. I’m sorry about that.”

“I’m scared to tell the guy who made it. I think he might kill himself. He worked on it for six months. Um, you get my message?”

“Yes.” He took her arm and steered her out of earshot of her staff. “Lyssa, where the hell is this coming from? You told me you’re still paying off the loan for your refurbishment.”

Lyssa wore as sheepish a look as the health official’s, and Karl’s gut clenched. Damn it, she was a friend. A good neighbor, at least. Or had been.

“Well, business has been good lately. I paid it off sooner than expected. We’ve become popular with the marines.”

“Looks like they were having a really smashing time in here last night.”

She shrugged, ignoring the sarcasm in his tone. “So they could use some more elbow room.” She swept a hand at the mess. “Which would make this less likely. It’s a good offer, Karl. Set you up nicely.”

“Somewhere else, you mean.”

“You do keep saying you want to go back to Earth one day.”

One day. But now? He could. He could take the money and run and probably live on it for the rest of his life. He didn’t need much in the way of luxury.

“I’d take on any of your staff who want to stay,” Lyssa said.

It wasn’t just the staff, though.

“Mine’s the last gay bar on the station.”

“Maybe I’ll make this place gay friendly.”

Karl laughed. Yeah, that would sit well with the people he suspected of fronting her the money for this.

“I don’t think so.”

“Come on, Karl. You’re in this business for money, same as me. You don’t have some kind of duty to stay open.”

Didn’t he? One by one all the other gay clubs and bars had closed down, been bought out, or changed to mainstream. All in the twelve months since the military had decided to base a fleet out of Saira Station to protect the local shipping lanes.

Only Eternity remained. The name almost seemed like a joke now. Eternity? Four good years and one bad one and already his time here could be ending.

“At least think about it,” Lyssa said, putting her hand on his arm, giving him a sympathetic look. “It’s got to be better than all this trouble.”

She could have just meant the general extra trouble the influx of new people had brought—the station’s population had doubled almost overnight—but he didn’t think so. She meant the trouble Eternity in particular had suffered. And would go on suffering until he wised up and took the money and ran.

“I’ll think about it.”

Anger simmering, he went back to his office. Fuck the military. They had screwed his life up once before, and they were doing it again. He couldn’t escape. Just got comfortably settled here on Saira, and five thousand of the bastards showed up. A man could be forgiven for feeling victimized.

That inevitably brought his thoughts to the military bastard who had screwed with him barely an hour ago. Greg. Pale skin Karl wanted to stroke, kiss, caress…

Not going to happen. He didn’t even want it to happen. Someone like Greg would be trouble. That was why Karl had his rules and preferred someone less complicated. He took out his Link and called Ryan. It didn’t get less complicated than Ryan. Not that Karl liked to encourage him; Ryan had an agenda for sure. But he could certainly help a man forget his troubles. And sometimes his name and what day it was.

Ryan here. I’m busy right now…” the recorded voice said.

Damn. Karl could guess doing what.

If you want to talk, talk. If you want to make an appointment…”

Appointment? Could he be more blatant? Karl ended the call. He wouldn’t leave a message, and he certainly wouldn’t ask for an appointment. He knew damn well how Ryan earned his living, but he had never paid for his services.

Bringing up some work on his terminal, he tried to put both Greg and Ryan out of his mind. He had a bar to keep open.

Chapter Two


What the hell had he been thinking?

Greg flashed his ID at the sentry, who scanned it and let him through the gate.

A couple of officers nodded to him as he passed on the way to his quarters, but since he wore civvies, nobody saluted. Most didn’t recognize him. It hadn’t been a lie when he told Karl he’d only arrived a week ago.

Thinking of Karl made the guilt rush back. How could he have come so close to taking such a stupid chance? Karl could have been anyone. A fellow officer, even. He had the physique of a soldier and the bearing of an officer. One thing Greg didn’t need was to have a quickie and then run into the man in the officer’s mess hall.

Who could blame him for feeling tempted, though? Karl was gorgeous with his dark skin and cropped hair that Greg wanted to run his hand over to feel it tickle against his fingers. Karl must lift weights. Shoulders and arms like his took a lot of work. Greg would like to give him another type of workout.

Stop it! He reached his quarters and touched the nameplate on the door—1st LIEUTENANT G. MATTHEWS—as if he could gather strength from it. Lieutenant. An officer. Officers didn’t pick up strangers in coffeehouses. He locked the door behind him, grateful for the solitude and even for the chill of the room. Any other time he’d have turned up the heat, but right now a little cold would do him good.

After taking a few deep breaths to try to dismiss the image of Karl from his mind, he checked his terminal for new messages. One from his father nagged him. It had arrived two days ago, and he hadn’t replied yet. Ridiculous not to. It only asked how he was settling into his new posting. Okay, maybe it still held an undertone of disbelief that Greg would take a transfer from a warship to a ground posting. But they’d already had that discussion, and Admiral Matthews was not a man to waste time going over the same ground a second time. Greg read the message again, then closed it. Again. He’d reply later and tell his father about what he’d done since he arrived.

Almost got picked up for sex by a strange man in a coffee shop.

With some strategic omissions.

Time. He checked his watch. Three hours before he had to report for duty. So he could stay here and brood about what he’d been tempted to do and what he hadn’t done and why he didn’t have the guts to reply to his father’s message. Or he could go on duty early.

No contest. He changed into his uniform and headed to the systems-development center.

Twenty minutes later he was at his desk, trying to keep his mind off Karl and on work. For Greg’s first project, his commanding officer had assigned him to design a subroutine for a new shipboard sensor system. It might be only a small part of the software, but it was still important work that demanded his full attention. He needed to focus. He’d come to work early to escape distractions, but everywhere he went, he found more. Just like on the ships.

Just like Ben Layton.

Commander Ben Layton had barely given Greg a second glance, and he called him “Lieutenant” or “Mr. Matthews” when he did have occasion to address him. But despite that entirely proper distance between the first officer and a subordinate, all Greg had wanted was for Layton to use his given name, preferably moaning it while he lavished attention on every inch of the man’s fantastic body.

Trying to put Layton out of his mind, he started setting up tests for his software routine. If the tests worked, he’d be ready to hand the work off for checking and full testing. Greg suspected his CO was testing him too, giving him this small project rather than putting him straight on the team that worked on the main systems. Greg would pass the test.

He often had to prove himself this way when he took up a new posting. People found out Lieutenant Matthews was the son of Admiral Matthews, and they assumed his father’s influence had brought him his rank and posting. They assumed he would coast through his job.

They were wrong. Greg didn’t coast. Not only out of a sense of duty, but also in self-defense. A man who played on influential connections and didn’t pull his weight attracted resentment from others. Others who’d look out for any way to bring him down.

Greg set the first batch of tests running. As he watched them flicker across the screen, his mind went back to Layton.

The crush on him was insane, of course. Layton had a wife and family and would be a captain in a couple of years. The chances of him suddenly deciding he wanted to go to bed with a junior officer were between zero and zero squared.

Even more insane, it wasn’t the first time. On every ship he’d been assigned to, Greg had found an unwitting man to become the object of his unrequited longing. In the end he always had to move on, before he did something stupid. Before he let something slip. Before he threw himself at Ben Layton’s feet and begged for just one kiss.

They weren’t all like Layton; many of the guys Greg had fallen for had been quite ordinary looking. The more ordinary looking they were, the more he convinced himself he must be in love with them, because it couldn’t be simple lust, and if it was love, it was…

Worse. It was worse.

It never had been love. Just the effect of the close quarters and being around someone all day every day. A few months of those conditions left Greg either wanting to kill a man or convinced he loved him. The ships were the problem, he’d decided eventually. Small crews of men stuck together for weeks with little privacy. By the end of a long run the tension was thick enough to scoop out of the air with a spoon. So when he saw Saira Station wanted computer-systems specialists, he’d put in a transfer request like a shot, eager to test his hothouse theory.

With thousands of men instead of only a few dozen he could hide in the crowd. And working in the systems-development center, he’d barely see any of them, in any case. His strategy was to lose himself in his work and stop thinking about sex with unattainable men.

Karl hadn’t been unattainable. Quite the opposite. But if he were a civilian, that had its dangers too. He wouldn’t understand the need for total secrecy the way another serviceman would. If he said the wrong thing to the wrong person and it got back to the military police…

His terminal beeped, and he realized the latest tests were complete and he’d barely seen them running. Damn it, concentrate! He wasn’t here to think about Layton or Karl, but to work on crucial software that could make the difference between life and death for men on starships. Men like his brothers. A software glitch could endanger lives. He would not be the man responsible for any such glitch.

Hoping it would help him concentrate, he got himself a coffee, sent another batch of tests, and dismissed thoughts of anything but software from his mind.


Late in the watch, Commander Bradshaw, in charge of the systems-development center, called Greg into his office.

“I’ve reviewed your test results, Lieutenant. They look good. I’ll send them over to the test center for a final check, and then your subroutine will be ready to deploy.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Bradshaw made a note on his Link, then set it aside and sat back in his chair, contemplating Greg. A line of sweat tickled Greg’s spine. He hated it when a senior officer looked him over like that. He kept expecting an accusation.

“I haven’t only reviewed the test results, I’ve checked over all your work on the project, and I’m very pleased with it.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You follow standards. You document fully. You even take responsibility when you make a mistake. Like the other day.” He smiled. “Most men wouldn’t want to admit they’d spent six hours up a blind alley because of one small coding error. But you did.”

“If it helps someone else avoid the same error, then it was worth six hours, sir.” He saw no sense in pretending it hadn’t happened. “Though it was a frustrating day.”

Bradshaw chuckled. “I think you went through the center’s coffee ration for the week. But I like your attitude, Lieutenant Matthews. Thinking about others learning from your mistakes makes you a team player. I wasn’t sure of that at first. Your records suggest you’re happier working alone.”

Greg frowned. Damn, he’d never meant to let people think that. People who preferred to be alone stood out too much.

“Many of the ships I’ve served on have been quite small, sir, so I didn’t always have a lot of choice about working alone. But I enjoy working in a team and sharing ideas.”

“In that case, you’ll be pleased to hear that since you’ve done well with this subroutine, I’m going to move you to the main project team tomorrow.”

“Thank you, sir.” Greg’s chest puffed up, and the sweat on his backbone vanished. Test not only passed, but aced!

“I see you reported for duty early,” Bradshaw said. “In that case, you can finish early.”

“That’s not necessary, sir.”

“Go on with you. I won’t have people calling me a slave driver. Go and get some rest, or go out and have a drink. You deserve it.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He saluted and left, grateful to do so. After nearly twelve hours of work, his shower and his bed called to him, seductive as sirens. He would not be going out to get a drink, either in the officer’s club or off-base. If he could barely control his libido with nothing stronger than coffee in him, he couldn’t trust himself with alcohol.

But over the last few hours he’d stopped beating himself up too much about what happened with Karl. He now blamed it on the unsettling effect of his transfer. He couldn’t expect to be perfect right away. Of course he would still be tempted. But after all, he had resisted. He’d come close—so close—to going off with Karl, but he’d come to his senses.

Deciding to take the optimistic view and be proud of his restraint today, Greg felt better. Time for that shower, then some sleep to clear his head. He could still smell Karl and had to get that out of his mind. Had to get those strong hands out of his mind. Hands he’d like to feel stroking down his back, cupping his ass…

Definitely need a shower. Cold. He stood and had just begun to undo his shirt buttons when the door chime sounded. His heartbeat raced briefly, until he gained control over his usual surge of anxiety about an unexpected visitor. Buttoning up again, he answered the door.

A military policeman stood there, wearing a patch on his sleeve that indicated an attachment to military intelligence. Greg’s stomach lurched, and the air froze in his throat.

“Lieutenant Matthews? Please come with me.”

* * *

The MP showed Greg into an office in the military-intelligence building. A desk lamp gave the only light in the room. Of course, the men who worked in the shadows liked it that way. A man sitting behind the desk leaned forward into the light.

“You may go,” he told the MP, who saluted and closed the door, leaving Greg in the dark with the small and rather bland man, who nevertheless made his heart pound with fear.

“I’m Lieutenant Commander Jamieson. Please sit, Lieutenant.”

Greg didn’t sit. “Why have I been arrested?” He tried to sound outraged, but his dry mouth and throat made him merely hoarse. Still, anything to distract the man from his shaking hands and the sweat he felt sure must be dripping from him.

“Oh, he didn’t actually arrest you, did he? I gave express orders that he shouldn’t arrest you.”

He hadn’t, Greg realized. Maybe after dreading this day for so long, he’d simply filled in what he expected would happen. Come to think of it, being in this office didn’t seem to be standard operating procedure either. The MP should have taken him to the provost marshal’s headquarters. What did military intelligence want with him?

“All right, then. Why am I here?”

“I think you’re well aware of that, Lieutenant. Otherwise why did you assume you’d been arrested when you hadn’t?”

Word games. It was one of the ways they tried to trip you up. They wouldn’t get him so easily. He laid his haughtiest “son of the admiral” tone on thick.

“Tell me why I’m here, or I’m going to my commanding officer to make a complaint.”

“Gladly.” Jamieson turned on his terminal screen and read from it. “Belhall Station, twentieth of May last year. You picked up a man in a bar and spent three hours and seventeen minutes with him in a motel room. Farril Station, August fourteenth. You were observed meeting a man in a plaza, going to his quarters, and emerging the next morning. Fielding Lanes Station, January this year…” He stopped and looked up at Greg. “Should I go on? There are several more, but I think you see where I’m going with this.”

The room shrank to just a ball of light around Jamieson. Greg flopped into the chair because his legs wouldn’t hold him any longer. He’d hoped—dared to hope—it might be about something else. It might be a mistake. But no. He’d always known this day would come. I’m so sorry, Dad. He never should have joined the military and risked disgracing his family. Better never to pursue the career he loved than to risk losing it in a scandal.

“I want a lawyer.” He could no longer fake a defiant tone. His request came out as a cracked and faded whisper.

“Oh, I wouldn’t recommend that,” Jamieson said. “Then this whole thing would be on the record. And that’s the one thing you want to avoid, isn’t it?”

On the record? Surely it already was? Those places and dates… Unless military intelligence had kept this quiet for some reason. But why? Just one of those incidents would be enough for a conduct-unbecoming charge. Why would they keep them under wraps?

For the exact same reason they’d been watching him in the first place, he supposed. Because of his father. To protect the admiral from the effects of Greg’s foolishness, or for another reason? Vacuum cold gripped him. His father was powerful enough to be involved in politics. Someone who controlled this information could use it to control him. By indulging his weakness, Greg had put far more at risk than his career. If Greg were publicly disgraced, someone could blackmail Admiral Matthews for political ends by threatening to expose him. He dropped his face into his hands.

“I can send this information over to the provost marshal’s office right now,” Jamieson said. “You will be arrested within an hour. A court-martial will strip you of your commission and give you a dishonorable discharge for conduct unbecoming an officer.”

Greg moaned, imagining the expressions of disgust on the faces of his father and brothers when they heard. The day he’d left for the academy, his father had taken him aside and told him to have more self-confidence. That he had the potential to do as well in the service as any of his three older brothers, all already qualified and moving fast up the ranks. Greg had sworn he’d do his best to live up to those expectations. But even then he’d carried the secret he knew could destroy his career.

And not only his. The family name would become the subject of scandal and gossip. People would snigger and make jokes behind the backs of his father and brothers, damaging their authority. Oh God, he wanted to vomit. He wanted a gun. Or an air lock. Finish it now.

“Or I could delete all the information. I’ve removed the files from the central database. I hold the only copies. I could wipe them from existence too and give you a second chance.”

Greg looked up slowly, wondering if he’d lost his sanity and was just hallucinating Jamieson’s words. But no, he seemed to have spoken. He was watching Greg speculatively. Second chance? What second chance?

“Why would you do that?”

“Because you’re going to do something for me.”

Of course. Blackmail. Jamieson must want something from the admiral, and rather than risk a direct approach, he planned to use Greg instead. Disgust surged through Greg, but he tried to keep it off his face, suddenly feeling as if he walked a tightrope, relying on this man to either save his career or let him fall.

“What do you want?”

Jamieson turned his screen around to show Greg a picture. Not one taken months ago on some station light-years away, but one taken only a few hours ago, right here. Him and Karl at the coffee shop. Had he really been sitting so close to Karl? Could he have been more obvious? He thought he’d learned some discretion.

“I didn’t…” he began and stopped. A friend had once told him to say as little as possible when questioned. They’d got him eventually, but he hadn’t named Greg.

“No, you didn’t.” A smirk changed Jamieson’s face from bland to ugly. “You dropped him rather abruptly.” Another picture came up on the screen. A baffled and disgruntled-looking Karl watching Greg walk away. “He doesn’t look too pleased. Perhaps he’d like to see you again.”

Greg kept quiet. Jamieson would come to the point. Until then he held his breath, waiting for this promised second chance. What the hell did Karl have to do with it?

“This man is Karl Webster,” Jamieson said.

“I know his name,” Greg said, sensing an implication and resenting it.

“Oh, you actually bothered to get it?” That smirk again. “He owns a bar called Eternity, which caters to your kind. There used to be several of those on this station, before we moved in. Now Mr. Webster’s is the only one left.”

Greg supposed “we” had gradually pushed the rest out of business.

“I want his establishment gone too.”

The “I” betrayed Jamieson’s personal interest. He wasn’t just acting under orders. He wanted it gone himself.

“But Webster is stubborn. And he has a grudge against the military. He also received a discharge for his homosexual activities.”

Also,” Greg heard. Meaning just like the one Greg would also get if he didn’t cooperate.

“Quite a strange case, really,” Jamieson said. “Promising officer on the fast track to command. Out of the blue, he makes an advance to a fellow officer. Offered no defense at his court-martial hearing. If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect him of faking to get out of his remaining service time. But apparently not.”

Had Karl named any other officers or men at his interrogation? Greg had vowed years ago that if—when—the worst happened, he wouldn’t give up any names. Other men had protected him in the past. He’d do the same. He’d hang on to one last thread of his honor.

“Probably wrong in the head,” Jamieson said with a shrug, still speculating about Karl. “His sort often goes that way. Weak-minded.” Greg clenched his fists, but he held in the rage trying to burst from him. Instead he took a breath and spoke in a level tone.

“What do you want from me?”

“I want you to go undercover. I’ll have you temporarily assigned to my command and provide you with a cover identity and an apartment off the base. Then you will get close to Webster. I want to know everything he’s doing to thwart our attempts to close his filthy den. And I want something to use against him.”

“When you say ‘get close to him,’ what exactly are you talking about?”

“Don’t play coy with me, Lieutenant. You know exactly what I mean.”

“You…you want me to seduce him?” Greg didn’t know if the dizziness that washed over him came from horror or a thrill of guilty anticipation.

“I’d send in one of my people, but there are some things a normal man shouldn’t be asked to do, even in the line of duty.” Jamieson looked at Karl’s frozen image on the screen again. “Anyway, I don’t think seduction will be required. I don’t think anything beyond ‘showing up’ will be required.”

His sneering laugh sent a burst of rage through Greg, making him leap to his feet.

“I am an officer! How dare you blackmail me? Do you know what my father could do to you?”

“Of course I know. Just as I know you’ll never tell him.”

Greg’s anger deflated. No, he wouldn’t. He knew he should. He should go to his father or his commanding officer and report Jamieson. But did he have the guts to give up his career voluntarily?

“What am I asking that’s so hard?” Jamieson said. “You already want this man. I’m giving you permission to have him. Do what you want to do. Make him fall for you. Make him tell you his secrets. And then tell those secrets to me. That’s all I’m asking you to do.”

Greg’s fingernails dug deep into his palms. He wouldn’t do this. He couldn’t do this. Could he?

Jamieson turned a picture frame on the desk. It showed a pretty woman, holding two girls. “Some officers have brought their families to the station. This is my wife and daughters. They’re waiting to join me.” He smiled at the picture, his face softening, losing the blandness again, but this time in the glow of a proud parent. When he turned back to Greg, the smile changed into a scowl. “But I will not bring them here until this place is clean.”

Then he’d need to close down the straight bars too, Greg thought, if the tales he’d heard about them were true. But of course, he wouldn’t. Men like Jamieson were quite familiar to Greg. They could turn blind eyes very selectively.

Greg couldn’t do this. He just couldn’t. If he refused to cooperate with Jamieson, then he’d be exposed and shamed, but to use sex as a weapon against an innocent man was shameful in itself. A man of honor could never agree to do it.

But what honor did Greg have? He’d lied for years to the military and to his family. His career rested on a lie. To deceive and betray Karl would be dishonorable, but it would at least only be his dishonor. He couldn’t lose what he no longer possessed.

“If I agree to this…” Even saying that meant he’d agreed to it, and Jamieson knew it, Greg guessed, seeing his pleased little smirk. “You’ll destroy all of the data? All the evidence against me? That’s what you said.”

“That’s what I said. Clean sheet, Lieutenant. Fresh start. I have no interest in ruining your career. Whoever’s son you are, you’re of no interest to me. I have bigger fish to fry.”

A fresh start. And to earn it, all he had to do was sleep with a man he wanted anyway. Why not? Karl was nobody to him. Greg had to put his family first, ahead of a stranger. Nobody could fault him for that, surely?

But Karl wasn’t nobody. Even after talking to him for only a few minutes and hearing what Jamieson had said about him made Greg think Karl was someone to admire, not deceive and betray without a qualm. He had stood up to the military when his fellow bar owners had surrendered. A man with more backbone than Greg, for sure.

Greg was weak. Jamieson knew it, and Greg knew it. He feared the disgrace of a court-martial. He feared losing his family. It couldn’t be wrong to fear those things, could it? Any rational man would. Was it wrong to snatch at any chance to avoid it happening? Even if someone else had to suffer?

“Can I have time to think about it?”

“You have tonight,” Jamieson said. He still looked smug. “Then in the morning, pack a bag and report to me.”

Chapter Three


“Everything okay up here?” Karl asked as he passed the security man stationed at the top of the stairs to the balcony.

“Boys are all behaving themselves.”

Karl set off past the long row of bench seats along the back wall of the balcony. Couples, men and a few women—something Karl was still getting used to—sat on the benches, necking or just talking.

The bouncer followed a few steps behind on what Karl knew the security staff called “dick patrol.” They’d had to throw guys out for forgetting they were in public. Some of the closed gay bars had turned a blind eye, but Eternity wasn’t that kind of place. Especially with the authorities looking for any possible excuse to close them down.

Some longtime patrons exchanged nods or smiles with Karl as he passed. When he reached the far end of the balcony, he leaned on the rail and looked down at the throng below. From here, he had a good view of the entrance, and he watched for a while as more customers came in. They’d be full soon, and the call would go to the doormen: “one out, one in.” Karl had to insist they were strict about it, because of the fire regulations. If the police paid a surprise visit and found so much as one person over maximum capacity, that would give them an easy excuse to close the bar and maybe even take Karl’s liquor license.

Probably about an hour from maximum capacity, he estimated, his gaze sweeping the crowd. In the old days, he’d known almost every customer by sight at least. Now the old faces were swamped by a sea of strangers.

Well, I’ll be damned. Here was a familiar face.

Greg. Coming from the entrance, taking the steps down to the main floor. He wore black pants and a green T-shirt, which Karl fixed on to follow him to the bar. It took him a few minutes to get served—Karl would have to advertise for some more bar staff soon—then he moved away. Where would he go?

And why did Karl care? Maybe because Greg had infiltrated his fantasies many times over the last few days. But he’d never expected to see him in the bar. He remained certain that Greg was military, and the military guys usually didn’t take the chance on coming in here. Eternity was too undeniably what it was for anyone to say, I just came in for a drink. I didn’t know it was that kind of place. Good luck with that one at the court-martial hearing.

Greg found an interesting spot to settle. Up a couple of steps, leaning on a pillar. Good position to watch the room. Looking for a man? Looking for a specific man? Or could he be on an assignment of some kind? Since Karl knew all the station’s police officers by sight, none of them could come in here undercover looking for dirt. An MP, on the other hand…

Damn.

Karl left his position at the rail, hurried down the nearest staircase, and headed across the floor. The crowd slowed him only a little. He was an expert at weaving through it by now. A moment later, he took the steps up to where Greg stood.

“Hi.” Karl raised his voice enough to be heard over the background music. They didn’t play the music too loud up here—saved that for the dance floor downstairs.

Greg’s answer was a choking cough as Karl’s abrupt appearance caught him in the middle of taking a sip from his glass. Resisting the urge to pound him on the back, Karl waited for him to pull himself together.

“Karl,” Greg gasped. He put the glass down on a shelf on the pillar and wiped his watering eyes. “Sorry. You came out of nowhere there.”


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