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Gods Of War, Book One:

ORIGINS


SHANNON WEST

TS MCKINNEY





Origins

Copyright © 2018, Shannon West, TS McKinney

Published by Painted Hearts Publishing

Smashwords Edition


About the Book You Have Purchased


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Origins

Copyright © 2018 Shannon West, TS McKinney


ISBN 10: 1-946379-93-X

ISBN 13: 978-1-946379-93-1


Authors: Shannon West, TS McKinney

Proofing Editor: Gary Leach

Publication Date: April 2018

All cover art and logo copyright © 2018 by Painted Hearts Publishing

Cover design by E Keith


ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission.

All characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.





Prologue


“Fall out of there, Logan,” the annoying voice said again, as a baton banged against the door. “Not gonna tell you again.”

Logan opened one eye and groaned. “I hope the hell not. Fuck off, Brooks, I just climbed in my rack an hour ago. I worked graveyard shift last night, which means I can sleep till this afternoon. Go bother somebody else.” He had been on third since he came to The Castle and had only been finally moved to second a couple of weeks ago. But yesterday, one of the new guys, a twenty-year-old named McGuire, and a sailor from out west somewhere, had tried to kill himself by hacking at his wrists with a goddamn fork he managed to slip out from his kitchen detail. An amazing feat when you thought about it considering the level of security in this place. The dumb fuck had one wrist done and was starting on the other when one of the guards passing his cell happened to look in and notice what he was doing. So, they had hauled the new guy’s ass to the hospital psych ward and shifted Logan back to midnights to help cover his shift.

It was surprising how quickly Logan had gotten out of the habit of third, and it was already kicking his ass. He used to be able to pull an all-nighter with the best of them, but not anymore. Too damn old, he figured, though he’d just had his thirty-first birthday.

“Like I give a shit what shift you worked,” Specialist Brooks was saying through the door, tapping his little baton on the glass again for good measure. “You’re supposed to come with me. Now haul your ass out of that rack.”

Logan allowed himself a moment to fantasize jamming that baton up Brooks’ ass before he groaned and rolled out, knowing the son-of-a-bitch wasn’t going away until he did. He ran his hand over his face, trying to clear away some of the cobwebs and stood up, feeling a little satisfaction when the E-4 blanched and backed up a step even though he was still on the other side of the door. Pussy. Logan stood six feet four inches, and he wasn’t considered to be a small man in any kind of way. If he did say so himself.

He reached for his boots under the table and pulled them on. In this eight by nine-foot cell, it seemed nothing was ever far away. Except getting out of there. Logan was had only three months left to go on a sixteen-month sentence for involuntary manslaughter. Still, he couldn’t afford to let himself fantasize about it too much. He wanted it too fucking bad.

He jammed his feet in the boots and laced them up, because he didn’t want to hear any shit about not being squared away. He had fallen face down in his rack that morning when he got off and hadn’t bothered taking off his uniform, because he’d been too wiped out to care. It wasn’t too badly wrinkled, because he hadn’t moved much once he fell in—too damn tired—and he hoped it would do. He pushed his shirt back down in his trousers and smoothed his hands over it. No sense in poking the bear. When he was done, he went over to the stand by the narrow opening at the foot of the door to let Brooks chain his ankles. Brooks finally opened the door, and Logan fell in behind the E-4 as he led the way out of the common area and headed toward the stairs.

He could barely keep his eyes open as he shuffled along after Brooks down one long corridor after another, wondering what fresh hell was coming now. He’d been lucky, or so he had been told, to get such a light sentence in this place they called the Castle. Funny, he didn’t feel lucky. Federal guidelines were twelve to sixteen months, and he’d been given the maximum, so where was the luck in that?

The USDB at Leavenworth, originally built in 1879, had been torn down and rebuilt in 2002, and, on the outside at least, it now resembled a community college more than a military prison. But looks were deceiving. It was maximum security, Level III and considered hard time. Prisoners wore ankle chains when they were out of their cells in public areas, and the guards were mostly fair, but all of them were hard asses. It was possible to get custody levels reduced for good behavior, but in actual fact, it didn’t happen quickly or even all that often, and it hadn’t for him.

They came to a door at the end of a long hallway, and Brooks knocked softly on the door. A gruff voice inside called out, “Come in.”

Seated behind a desk was an Army bird colonel he didn’t know, who was wearing camouflage ACUs, like the guards. He was maybe fifteen years older than Logan, and his name tag said his name was Keeling. He was writing something in a file folder as they came in, and the specialist gave the colonel a snappy salute and held it till he looked up. Logan’s salute was slower and left a lot to be desired in the snap department. Keeling returned their salutes and his mean, dark eyes swept over Logan, apparently taking his measure and finding it lacking from the sour look on his face.

“At ease,” Keeling said. “Specialist, you can wait outside.”

“Yes, sir,” Brooks said, firing off another salute, which in Logan’s opinion was one of the many, many things fucked up about the military. Too goddamn much saluting.

“Private Logan,” the colonel said, in a tone that said he didn’t really expect an answer.

He was called by his rank every day in prison, but he never got used to hearing it. He’d been a sergeant once upon a time, but when he was convicted, he was given a reduction in rank, a loss of pay and a dishonorable discharge. Seemed a little beside the point, since he was doing hard time.

Logan stood in front of the desk, trying not to fidget. He was so goddamn tired, and this shit, whatever it was, was seriously cutting into his rack time, which was his sole focus at the moment. Logan noticed Keeling had dark, buzzed hair, high and tight, and a mouth not made for smiling. Logan doubted he ever did it much. He was still watching Logan, his narrow gaze that of a hawk’s as it circled over a chicken house. Logan shifted his own regard to the wall behind the colonel’s head. He didn’t want this asshole to perceive any challenge in his eyes.

“You’re probably wondering why you’re here.”

“Not really, sir.”

The colonel quirked up one eyebrow, and Logan lifted one shoulder. “Same shit, different day, sir,” he said, and then wished he hadn’t said it when he saw the man’s eyes narrow, and his thin lips turn down at the corners. Shit. When Logan got tired, he seemed to lose what little filter he had. Not that what he’d said wasn’t true—he just shouldn’t have said it out loud.

“Sorry, sir,” he mumbled, silently willing the man to just get on with it—to tell Logan whatever the fuck he was here for and then let him get back to his cell to sleep.

The colonel leaned forward, his face registering distaste. “The monotony of prison life getting to you, Private Logan? Maybe you should have thought of that before you started the bar fight that resulted in a man’s death.”

“Yes, sir,” he said, straightening up his posture and giving the colonel what he wanted so he could get this over with. He kept his gaze steady, trying to look composed and unflustered. It was never good to show fear or anger to one of these guys. In actual fact, he hadn’t started the damn fight, but he’d been there all right. And it was true that one of the assholes he’d been fighting with had been thrown across the room, then stumbled backward, fell over a chair and went through a plate glass window. He wasn’t the one who’d thrown him, but that hadn’t seemed to matter a whole lot, when all the others in the bar pointed their fingers at him.

Logan tried to look remorseful, just to appease the colonel. In his experience men like the colonel were always wrapped way too tight, and he didn’t want to give him any reason to come undone. The colonel stared at him for another moment and then got abruptly to his feet and walked stiffly toward the door with a slight hitch in his step. Must have been due to that large stick up his ass.

“Stay where you are, Private,” he said as he reached the door. “I’m sending someone in to tell you why you’re here. Maybe you’ll find today’s ‘shit’ a bit different.”

“Yes, sir,” he said, a little confused by all the coming and going. What the fuck was all this anyway?

The door closed behind him and he was left cooling his heels for the next ten minutes or so. The room was quiet and the heat was on, so he was almost asleep on his feet, drowsing like a horse, when the door opened. He straightened his shoulders, not wanting to piss the colonel off again, but instead, a new player entered the office, and this time it was a civilian. Logan hadn’t seen a civilian in…hell, he didn’t know when. Civilian contractors and their employees were around some during the day, but only in the main areas, like the kitchens and the hospital. Not usually in the back with the dirty pots and pans, where Logan spent his time.

The man was almost too handsome. He reminded him of the actor who had played in Top Gun. Slick and good-looking like that, but almost too much so. He was wearing an expensive suit—black and new, the close-fitting kind you saw on TV sometimes on young actors. You needed to be slim to pull that off and this guy didn’t have any extra flab on him, but at maybe five six, he was a bit too short to be called really well-built. At least in Logan’s opinion. You had to watch the short guys—they often had something to prove. The guy’s eyes flickered over Logan as he came in, and he saw him noticing his height. Immediately, the man nodded at the straight-backed chair in front of him.

“Sit down, William. It’s okay if I call you William, isn’t it?”

“Sure, sir. But I’ve been called Logan most of my life. It’s what I prefer.” He wasn’t sure why he even added that last part. No one had given a damn what he preferred for a while now.

“Logan, then,” the man replied, giving him a smile that reminded him of that actor he looked like. Quick and easy and meant to be charming, like he knew he was handsome and liked to remind people every chance he got. “Is that a southern drawl I hear? Where are you from?”

“Tennessee…sir.” He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to call this guy so he was sticking with sir until he knew for sure.

“Ah. Well, I’m a southerner too, originally from south Florida. I don’t care much for these Kansas winters, do you?”

Logan gave his best impression of a polite smile. In his opinion, somebody from south Florida wasn’t a southerner, but maybe that was just him. “My name is Ben King, by the way,” the man said, and stretched across the desk to shake hands.

Logan glanced down at his hand in surprise before he reached for it. It was a firm handshake, with just the right amount of pressure. “I’m with the Institute. Have you heard of us?”

Logan shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“We used to be known as the Red River Group.”

“I’ve heard of Red River. Private contractors…mercenaries.”

“We’re hired guns, yes, but we provide security services to the United States federal government on a contractual basis. We’re an American-based private military company founded in 1999 by a former Navy SEAL and were renamed after the company was acquired by a group of private investors in 2010.

“Okay.”

The smile flashed again briefly. “And I’m here today to make you an offer, Logan.”

Logan stared at him for a long moment and shifted uneasily in his chair. “What kind of offer?”

“We’d like to recruit you.”

Logan’s eyes narrowed. After a long moment, he nodded. “Okay,” he said, warily waiting for the other shoe to drop.

King leaned back in the colonel’s chair. “I like you, Logan. Some men, when I tell them I’m recruiting them, especially from a place like this, want to know, why me? Or they say, ‘But I’m in jail.’ But you probably already know that your incarceration here is no real problem for me, and you already know why I want you, don’t you? You have a healthy ego.” He nodded at him. “You were a Ranger for six years, a highly decorated soldier. Considered to be a real asset to the Army. Isn’t that right?”

Logan gave a short, bitter laugh. “You mean before or after I fucked up? I don’t think anybody was calling me much of an ‘asset’ there at the end.”

King chuckled, still oozing charm like a snake oil salesman. “Okay, yeah, before you fucked up. We think you could be an asset again, Logan. To our group. According to your file, which I’ve studied carefully by the way, you were a good soldier, a good Ranger, but never invited to join the Army’s Delta Force because of disciplinary issues. You drank too much, got into too many fights. Even went AWOL once.”

“That wasn’t…” Logan shook his head. “I fell asleep in a parking lot and missed manifest. I got my ass chewed, a write up, but nothing more than that.”

“As I understand the term, manifest is a formation to get your paperwork in order before you get on the plane to deploy. A pretty important thing to miss because you were passed out in the car.”

“If that’s what they call sleeping in south Florida, then yes, sir.”

“All right, then let’s be more precise. You ‘fell asleep’ after a night of hard drinking. Lucky for you that you woke up and staggered in as the plane was loading.”

Logan shrugged. It was all water under the bridge now. That day he was referring to may as well have been from another life. But then this whole thing was beginning to take on a surreal quality.

“We’d still like to recruit you, Logan. You’re a maverick, but that doesn’t bother us. We think you have a certain skill set we can use.”

“And what would that be, sir?”

He flashed his teeth at him again. “Well, now. That would be classified.”

Logan regarded him thoughtfully. More bullshit, but he was curious as to how this might benefit him. “What about the fact that I have a few more months left in here? The Army just going to forget about that and throw open the door?”

“Something like that.”

Logan snorted and shook his head, waiting for the catch. There was always a catch.

“Look, Logan,” he said, leaning toward him. “The Army has given us a great deal of leeway on this project. A great deal. We can draw the personnel we need from wherever we find them. Our operation is something the United States government wants done, and our firm is brought in when they have jobs they aren’t willing to commit their own soldiers to. This operation is highly classified as I said, but usually when we’re called in, it’s because the government doesn’t want anyone knowing it’s a U.S. led effort.

“We don't count as boots on the ground, and Congress doesn’t consider us to be troops; therefore, we don’t count against troop-level caps in any war zone. This op is dangerous. Make no mistake about it. But the pay is good too. And we’re prepared to have your sentence commuted for time already served, and your dishonorable discharge wiped. You’d be released as early as tomorrow and in training for the mission a couple of days later. Your career as regular Army is over—but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a need out there for somebody like you.”

As Logan just blinked at him, almost afraid to move and wake himself up. Something wasn’t right here, but he almost didn’t want to know what it was. To get out of here—as early as tomorrow, he’d said…and to keep being a soldier of sorts… It all sounded way too good to be true.

King smiled at him, watching him closely. “I think you’ll find our remuneration package acceptable. Our Security Professionals start out at a base salary of seventy-five thousand a year. Of course, that doesn’t include cash bonuses, like the substantial sign-on bonus you’ll receive. Also stock bonuses, and profit sharing, which can raise that number significantly.” King flashed his teeth at him again. “What do you say?”

“I…” He wasn’t surprised to find his mouth too dry to speak. He swallowed and tried again. “Who do I have to kill?”

King gave him another of those smiles that didn’t reach his eyes, and a chill shot down Logan’s back. He’d been joking…sort of. King reached into the breast pocket of his coat and pulled out some papers. “So you are interested?”

Logan swallowed hard, afraid his mouth was too dry to allow him to answer. His hands were trembling a little. He looked directly at King, knowing the man had to see the hunger in his eyes, but he couldn’t hide it. “Where do I sign?”

King reached in the breast pocket of his coat and pulled out a paper. He slid it across the desk toward Logan. “On the bottom line, Logan. Right there on the bottom line.”

It was later, back in his cell and still trembling as he waited for word on his exit paperwork, that he allowed himself to think about how crazy fucked up this whole thing was. Since when were mercs so scarce on the ground that a firm like the Institute had to recruit from Leavenworth? Especially considering the shit ton of money he knew those guys received for private contractor work.

Logan did have a healthy ego, like the man said, and had always thought pretty well of himself, right up until the time he fucked up in that redneck bar. But he knew better than to think his skill set was so out of the ordinary that he was worth this kind of attention. Something was all wrong about this, and he knew it. And yet—whatever it was, it had to better than the life he was living on the inside. He was slowly but surely dying in here and even once he got out, what kind of job could he get with a dishonorable discharge hanging over his head? He quietly made his peace with whatever this was and waited for the guards to come for him.



Chapter One



Luke Warren woke up dreading the day he had ahead of him. Another eight to ten-hour training session loomed ahead, with five of the most intractable, bull-headed, pain-in-the-ass human beings it had ever been his misfortune to come across. The new recruits all had skills—that wasn’t the problem. It was their irresponsibility and lack of respect for themselves and everybody around them that caused the obstacles to their training, and time was running out. It was only days before deployment, and it was his job to make sure they were ready.

As he shaved that morning, he considered the men on his team. Eli Kowalski, a former Ranger from Arkansas, was one of the best shots he’d ever seen. Ron Perry, who used to be Green Beret before he got busted too many times for too many DUIs, excelled at martial arts, and the other former Green Beret, Todd Jackson, was a gifted linguist and spoke three languages fluently. Jake Wilson was an expert at munitions, and a former Army Ranger. Will Logan, another one-time Ranger, was a born leader, and the other men seemed to just naturally look to him for guidance, even in the short span of time they’d been at the training facility there in Columbus, Georgia.

But in Luke’s opinion, their bad attitudes displayed emotional weakness, no matter how physically strong they might be, and it was these weaknesses that had gotten them in trouble. But he supposed it was only to be expected from a bunch of undisciplined men like these, all of whom had been shipped in from one military brig or another, where they’d been serving time for relatively minor offenses. Will Logan had the worst charges of the lot and had been doing time at the USDB at Leavenworth for involuntary manslaughter. Luke had been warned of that before he took the assignment, and of Logan in particular, so he had no right to complain, but that didn’t stop him from doing it anyway. Logan got under his skin, and he wasn’t sure how he felt about him.

Luke’s father was a retired Marine gunny, so discipline was important to Luke and had been a part of his life for as long as he could remember. He, himself, had joined the Navy and not the Marines, mainly because he’d hated everything his father had ever stood for. His old man had tried to run his home like he did his troops. He was also a fucking wife beater—something Luke’s mom had kept hidden from him for a long time, since his father was rarely home, often deployed all over the world with his beloved Corps. Then one day when Luke was fourteen, he’d walked in on his old man knocking his mother around in the kitchen. Luke had helped her up off the floor, shaking with rage, and then took his dad completely off-guard when he turned and knocked him down.

His dad had jumped to his feet and came after him, but his mother got between them and told his dad she’d call the police that time if he didn’t leave, so he took off, yelling he was never coming back. No great loss in Luke’s opinion, and he told him so. In fact, those were their parting words, as he’d never returned home. His mother had actually grieved over the son-of-a-bitch.

Four years later, Luke had joined the Navy. After the first year, he had been invited to try to be a member of the SEALs, and later on he joined SEAL Team 6, or DevGru. He loved the service, loved being a SEAL and would never have left except for his mother’s illness. After spending four years in the Navy, Luke found out she had developed early onset Alzheimer’s at the age of forty-four. He had been called home to see her in the hospital, where she’d been taken after she’d had a fall outside. A passing patrol car had found her wandering the neighborhood in her nightgown, with a broken arm she was cradling to her chest. It had almost killed him to hear that.

She had begged him with tears rolling down her face not to “put her away.” The social worker urged him to put her in a nursing home, but when he took her there—the best one in the area—he knew he couldn’t leave her in that place. She had cried and begged him not to. She actually looked at him and said, “If you leave me here, I’ll find a way to kill myself.”

He couldn’t abandon her there, and felt he had no choice but to take an early out. He would never regret doing that, no matter how hard it had been. But he loved her. She was his mom. What else could he do but take care of her when she needed him the most? When she passed away two years later, and with his savings depleted, he’d started looking for a job. Then out of the blue, the Institute had literally come knocking on his door.

They told him they had just reorganized and were looking for team leaders. People highly trained in close-quarters combat, hostage rescue, high-value target extraction, and other specialized operations—all things he’d trained for in the SEALS. In his opinion the SEALS were the most highly trained elite force in the U.S. military, though he’d probably get an argument from Delta Force and Force Recon.

When Luke had been a part of DevGru, they had performed various types of special ops, but their primary mission had been counter-terrorism, just like the operations the Institute wanted him for. He hadn’t been briefed on the exact nature of this next special op, but he was pretty sure he was currently training these men to take part in it.

As he ate his breakfast standing over the sink so he wouldn’t get stains or crumbs on his clothes, his thoughts went back and lingered on one of the recruits in particular—Will Logan.

According to Logan’s records, he had been a Ranger for six years and was highly decorated, but like the others, had serious disciplinary issues. His career abruptly ended when he started a fight in a bar near Fort Benning, and when the dust settled at the end of it, a man was dead. There weren’t a lot of details in the files, but he’d served not quite all of his sentence when he was recruited by the Institute and somehow released for time served. There were moments when Luke found himself amazed at just how long the reach of the Institute actually was.

Rinsing his dishes, he put them in the dishwasher and straightened the kitchen before glancing at his watch. It was oh-five-thirty and he needed to be at the Institute in the next twenty minutes or so to begin his training session. He found his keys, shrugged on a jacket and went out to get in his car. He drove a four-year-old Honda Accord that had belonged to his mother, because it was a good car and had low mileage, which, come to think of it, was almost a metaphor for Luke himself. He made good money now, but he wasn’t flashy, never had been, and he liked to keep it that way, because he wanted to blend in and not draw any undue attention to himself.

He was Will Logan’s polar opposite in that regard. Logan was flashy as hell, and it certainly seemed to be by design. He was a good-looking bastard, tall and muscular. At least three or four inches taller than Luke’s six-foot frame. He had black hair that he wore too damn long and his eyes were blue too, that “violet” shade the actress in the old movies used to have. His mom used to watch a lot of those old movies when she could still follow them.

Logan looked too rugged to be classically handsome, but there was definitely something sexy as hell about him. Logan was the kind of man who would never blend in anywhere, and probably would never want to. He made Luke’s stomach clench every time he looked at him.

Logan’s first purchase after getting out of prison, or so Luke had overheard him bragging to the other trainees, had been a black 1200 Custom Harley Davidson motorcycle. He’d used his sign-on bonus with the Institute to pay cash for it and the bike was parked in the lot as Luke drove up, a Venom helmet just hooked from a d-ring on the bike's helmet lock. Luke had looked those helmets up on the internet after hearing the recruits talking about it and been surprised at how expensive they were. And it was just left right out there for anyone to steal. Their lot wasn’t exactly public, but it was the principle of the thing. It bothered him, and he didn’t understand it, just like most everything else about Logan.

Luke went inside and saw the trainees hanging out in the office by the coffee pot, looking a little rough. Logan was sitting in a chair with his head tipped back and aviators covering his eyes. He didn’t look as if he’d even showered and he needed a shave. Luke wondered what time he’d gone to bed the night before—or if he even had. He made it a point to walk past Logan and take a sniff. He reeked of cigarette smoke and cheap cologne. No alcohol though and that surprised him a little.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” Luke said, trying to keep his tone neutral. “Pick a sparring partner and meet me at the ring. We’re going to do a little hand-to-hand combat drilling today.” He ignored their groans and stalked out to the locker room, feeling unreasonably irritated, as he always did when Logan was near. He didn’t like to think about why.

The men weren’t in bad physical shape, considering. As prisoners, they spent a lot of time working out and had also worked a forty-hour week at various jobs and rehabilitation activities. The daily routines were repetitive, restrictive, and militarized, so Luke wasn’t sure what it was these men objected to the most in the daily workouts he gave them, but he suspected it was because they had a real problem with taking any kind of orders at all.

The men followed him slowly, grumbling and cracking foul-mouthed jokes as they came. Luke was already changing, and was bent over his locker digging deep in the bottom of it for his roll of tape for his hands. He was aware of several of the men walking past him in the narrow aisle when one of them suddenly slapped his ass. Hard. He raised up so fast he hit his head on the shelf in his locker and whirled around to glare at all of them in turn. He was glad he didn’t have a weapon, or he might have shot somebody.

“Who the fuck did that?” he spat out, and they stared innocently back at him.

Eli Kowalski froze in the act of pulling his T-shirt over his head. He had a grin still on his lips that he was trying unsuccessfully to wipe off as he looked up at Luke with big, wide eyes. “Did what, Mr. Warren?”

Luke slammed his locker shut, knowing he was literally the butt of the joke. “Very funny. See how much you’re laughing when we get in the ring…” He turned his head slowly to glare at the most likely candidate. “Logan.”

The man had the nerve to look affronted. “Me? Why do you always think I’m the one who does stuff? If you ask me, I think this might be harassment. Something fishy about the whole thing.” All the men were former Army except for him, and they never let him forget he was former Navy. Logan, in particular, fancied himself a comedian.

The others snickered, enjoying the play on words. But Luke had been hearing this kind of cheesy shit since they arrived, and it was getting old.

“Nobody asked you. Any of you. But you all signed up for this and took the Institute’s money. So just get your asses ready and get in the ring. Logan, you’re with me.”

“Aye, aye, sir!”

The words rang out as he turned his back. He stiffened, then pulled on his athletic shorts and T shirt and stalked toward the gym to climb through the ropes and up onto the center boxing ring. Dancing from one foot to the other, he tried to warm up as he waited impatiently for the others to join him. They dragged their feet as they came out, the two Green Berets, Perry and Jackson in the lead, followed by Kowalski, Wilson and Logan. Logan was wearing nothing but a pair of tight black sweat pants. The muscles rippled down his chest and abs and Luke turned away, calling out over his shoulder to him.

“Get up here, Logan. The rest of you can watch and try to learn something, because you’re up next.”

“Oooh,” Logan said, as he turned to the others and gave a mock shudder, pointing his finger at each of them in turn.

Eli covered his mouth with his hand and the others bit down on their cheeks or pressed their lips together to keep from laughing. Luke watched him steadily as Logan hung his towel over the back of a chair and ambled toward the ring. Everything about this man got to him, and he was finding it harder and harder to control his reactions.

As Logan climbed in the ring, still horsing around and pretending to be having trouble, the last, flimsy cords of his control finally snapped, and Luke rushed him in a series of feints, jabs and kicks that sent Logan back up against the ropes with rueful laugh. He held his hands up in front of him. “Damn, Warren, give me a chance to climb in before you go all Bruce Lee on me.”

Luke ignored the comment, but did dance backward, waving his hands at him in a “come on” gesture, and Logan smiled. Heat rushed over Luke’s face and he had to duck his head to try to hide it. The smile alone should have warned Luke—it never reached Logan’s eyes, which had turned cold and empty. Without warning, Logan suddenly rolled into a crouch and went after Luke, punching him in the nuts with his fist and rolling back out of the way as Luke fell forward on his knees, panting a little. “You asshole,” Luke wheezed, as soon as he could speak. He tracked him with his eyes as Logan danced around him in a circle, seemingly restored to good humor.

“What’s the matter, Warren?” He laughed along with the others, obviously quite amused by himself. “Hey, Warren, what do you have when you have two balls in your hand? A man's undivided attention.”

The others were laughing so hard they were falling over against each other, and even Logan was laughing good-naturedly. He finally danced over and offered his hand to help Luke stand up. Luke waved him away.

He held up both taped hands in a “don’t blame me” gesture. “Sorry about that, but you left yourself wide open. We’re supposed to make this realistic, right? Take it seriously? Just trying to do as you say, sir.”

He kept getting around behind him as he talked and pretended to be giving him a chance to recover, but Luke knew what he was trying to do. He stumbled to his feet just as Logan wrapped an arm around his neck from behind and got him in a standing rear choke hold. He wasn’t using a lot of pressure or else Luke would have been unconscious in seconds, but that didn’t stop him from running his mouth. Logan whispered directly in Luke’s ear, as intimate as a lover.

“Thought you were gonna teach me something. Go ahead—I’m waiting.”

Luke sagged in his arms, intent on making him think he was done. When he felt his muscular arm relax a bit, he bent over to his knees, hooked an arm around the back of Logan’s knee and jerked him off his feet. He slammed him down on the mat, then jumped nimbly backward, still a little out of breath from being hit in the groin, not to mention lifting the heavy fucker off his feet. Logan actually smiled up at him, before bouncing back up to his feet. Luke held out a taped hand and gestured again for him to bring it again.

“Okay,” Logan said, smiling as he circled slowly around the ring. “Pretty slick. I’m impressed. Hey, Warren, is it true that the Navy has really small decks? Can I see?”

Their spectators started laughing again, shaking their heads at his foolishness, and Logan stopped circling long enough to glance out at them and grin. That’s when Luke lunged at him, leading with his shoulder to shove into Logan’s midsection to knock him off his feet. It looked like Logan was going down, but at the last moment he twisted to the side, swept his foot under Luke’s and grabbed him around the neck to pull him down with him to the mat. He slid on top of Luke, straddling his chest and smiling down into his eyes. Reaching down, he patted his cheek. “Ready to give up? This is super comfortable for me, but it must be a little embarrassing for you.”

Luke, who had lost his temper by this time, even though he knew better, scowled up at him, then lifted his knee to kick him in the ass, making him fall forward and put his hands on the mat by Luke’s head. Logan quickly pulled his hands back up, but Luke grabbed his wrists and followed him, pushing his hands down to his groin. He dropped one hand to his side to trap Logan’s left foot against his body, arched his hips, and rolled over with him. Then Logan was on his back looking up at him.

“Nice move, Navy,” Logan said, panting but still smiling, then he balled up his fist and punched Luke right in the jaw. Luke rolled to the side to get away from him, but Logan followed him and then they were tumbling over and over across the mat, finally ending up with Logan on top again.

“You dirty bastard,” Luke groaned and tried to heave him off to the side. Logan anticipated the move by putting his right hand on the mat to hold himself steady, so Luke twisted to his lighter side to bring Logan’s knee sliding up his side to his waist, then jammed his foot into Logan’s side and scooped his ankle up with his arm. He was able to get to his feet then, pushing Logan into a leg lock.

Logan fell backward at that point, staring up at the ceiling. “Goddamn. You got me, Warren. I’m done.” Luke let him up, breathing hard, but happy to see Logan was out of breath as well. Luke gave him one last look before he stomped off the mats and climbed down, heading toward the water cooler. Logan stood up and grinned at the raucous yells and cheers from the other men and actually took a bow, as if he had won their match. He even lifted his hands in a ridiculous “winner” pose as Luke turned to glare at him, outraged when he grinned and winked.


****


“Mr. Warren,” came a voice from the door and all of them turned to look.

Logan saw the front desk receptionist, Katie, standing by the door. She was a timid little blonde, pretty in a mousy kind of way, who always looked ready to run whenever any of them so much as glanced at her. He wondered how long she’d been standing there, and if she was impressed by Warren’s performance. It was obvious she had a major crush, but who could blame her? The man was gorgeous in a buttoned-down, tight ass kind of way.

“I need to talk to you, sir,” she said and gave the men standing around joking with each other an uncomfortable look.

“Okay, Dana,” Warren said, shooting Logan a repressive glare. “I’ll be there in a minute. Logan, Eli’s your partner now. Spar with him until I get back. I’ll just be a few minutes.”

“Sure,” he said, and watched Warren square his shoulders a bit as he approached the girl. Was he tapping that? He wondered if she was Warren’s type and then wondered why he gave a shit. What was there about Warren that made him curious about him ever since he first saw him here and what was there about him that got so far under his skin? He was an uptight little prick, who had yet to say a kind word to any of them. Strictly business, that was Warren, and he invited the kind of shit they’d all been giving him since training started.

It had been Logan who’d slapped his ass in the locker room, of course. He hadn’t been able to resist such an invitation. That muscular, perfect ass had just been too tempting stuck out there like it was just waiting for him to walk by. Logan had been having a lot of sex since he got out of Leavenworth, with both women and men, but then he had a lot of lost time to make up for. And there was something about the way Warren looked that pushed all his buttons. Big time. He kind of wanted to muss up that perfect, neat exterior of his. He wanted him on his knees, those luscious lips wrapped around his cock, his hands clasped behind his back and those big eyes looking up at Logan for his next order. Fuck. He had to adjust himself after that image.

It wasn’t just that he was good looking. Even though it was obvious Warren took pains to blend in with everyone else. He was only fooling himself if he thought he was. There was no hiding those pretty green eyes of his or that bone structure. There were girls he used to know who would kill for those cheekbones. Not to mention his full, luscious lips—especially if he’d smile every once and a while. Logan shook his head and moved back in the ring beside Eli.

Logan had some fun sparring with Eli, mostly messing around, neither of them trying to inflict too much damage on the other. He kept glancing toward the door, waiting for Warren to come back in, but an hour passed and there was still no sign of him. He’d been a little surprised at how bent out of shape Warren got over what happened in the ring. He’d only been fooling around, trying to get a smile out of him, when Warren had lost his temper and went for the kill. Logan wondered if he was still pissed.

It was Perry who finally called for a break, wiping the sweat off his brow. “I gotta get some water,” he complained. “It’s been a while since I did this for any length of time. I ain’t used to this shit no more.”

His sparring partner, Todd Jackson nodded in agreement. “Where did that asshole Warren go anyway? He’s usually in here right on our ass every minute.”

Eli climbed wearily from the ring and plopped down in a chair, waving Jake off when he volunteered to go another round with him.

“Not me. Take Wilson—he’s just been sitting on his ass watchin’ us. Kick his ass for a change.”

Logan laughed and headed for the office. “Nah, I’ll give you both a break and go check on Warren.”

“Hey, bring me a water on your way back,” Eli called after him. He waved at him and headed toward the office, pushing open the door. There was no sign of Katie, but he saw Warren right away, his blond head bent, sitting in his office and fiddling with a letter opener on his desk and seemingly lost in thought. He looked a little stunned. Logan braced himself to be chewed out for leaving the gym, but Warren just glanced up at him as he stood in his doorway, a surprised look on his face, like he’d forgotten anybody else was there today.

“You okay, man?”

“Hmm? Uh, yeah, I’m fine. Did you need something?”

“No. It’s just…you said you were coming back and then you didn’t, so we were wondering what happened to you.”

Warren gave him a bitter smile. “You couldn’t care less what happened to me or where I was. None of you. You think I don’t know that?”

Logan frowned and stepped farther in. Well, this was new. Who would have thought Warren actually had feelings? “What the hell, man? Did your best friend die or something?”

“No,” he said softly, looking down at the desk. “My father did.”

Logan widened his eyes. “No shit. Damn.” He shuffled uneasily. “I’m sorry, Warren. I didn’t mean…”

“It’s fine,” he said, shaking his head. “We weren’t exactly close. As a matter of fact, I hadn’t seen him in probably ten years.” He fiddled with the letter opener some more. “It’s just…a shock, I guess. Seems as if I’m an orphan now.” He gave a sharp bark of laughter. “Hell, it’s not like I ever saw him or anything, but this is kind of final, you know?”

“Sure.” Logan stood for a few more seconds, at a loss for anything to say, and Warren finally looked up at him.

“You guys can knock off at lunch time today. I have to go to his lawyer’s office in Atlanta to sign some paperwork.”

“Okay, sure. I’ll tell the guys. I’m-I’m really sorry, Warren.”

“Thanks,” he said, looking distracted as he got up and moved past Logan, headed for the locker room.

“What about tomorrow?” Logan called after him, and Warren turned to regard him with a blank expression.

“What about it?”

“You said your dad died. I assumed you’d be out for a few days.”

“Well, you assumed wrong. Like I said, I have to sign some paperwork. That’s the extent of my involvement. I’ll see you tomorrow at the usual time.”

He turned and walked away, leaving Logan staring after him. Well, that was kind of cold even for a bastard like Warren. Whatever, Logan thought, shaking his head and getting a couple of cold bottles of water out of the fridge in the reception area. It was hard to figure a guy like Warren out. Was he as cold as he seemed or just dead inside? Shaking his head, Logan went back in to tell the others the good news that they were knocking off early.


****


Around nine o’clock that evening, Logan pulled open the door of Club Black Velvet and stepped inside. The crowd was a little sparse, maybe because it was only a Thursday night. He stood in the doorway for a moment, letting his eyes get adjusted to the room. This was a gay bar and a few men were scattered around the dance floor, while others were standing or sitting at the bar or in the booths along the wall. More than a few looked up as he walked in and made his way to the bar, and Logan gave them a once over look before dismissing them. He had a specific type in mind tonight, and none of these guys fit that bill.

Some of them here were G.I.s—obvious from the haircut and the way they held themselves. Most of them were taller and more muscular than he liked. Logan preferred the smaller ones, lithe and slim and flirty, who might like to ride his cock tonight. He considered himself to be bi, but there were times, like now, when only a man would do. He’d come here for one purpose and when that was accomplished, he’d be okay till the next time. He didn’t want a relationship and he liked there to be no strings attached. He also liked a bit of kink to really get him going—nothing serious and nothing involving whips or chains or clubs that catered to that kind of thing. But it took the right kind of guy, and he figured he’d know him when he saw him.

The light was murky and too dim to see in the dark corners. Smoke hung in the air, along with the smell of spunk and men’s cologne. The club had an “unofficial” back room, catering to those who wanted a quick, anonymous encounter. It was curtained off and at this time of the night would probably be pretty empty—much more so than when it got closer to one a.m. and last call. He ordered a beer and after he got it, he turned on his bar stool and let his gaze rove around the room. In a back booth, he caught a glimpse of blond hair and a beautiful profile as a man leaned forward slightly to pick up his glass. He blended back into the shadows of his booth before Logan could get a good look at him, but that one glimpse was enough to make him slide off his stool and make his way across the room.

He got all the way up to the table before he realized who it was he was looking at. “Well, if it isn’t the Navy, by God,” Logan said, slipping into the booth across from him. “Fancy meeting you here.”

Cool green eyes widened before glaring back at him and those lips tightened and turned down at the corners. “Logan—what the hell are you doing here?”

“I might ask the same of you.”

Logan shrugged and grinned. “You might…” Logan said, leaning back and beginning to enjoy himself. “Though I guess it should be pretty apparent to both of us.”

A long silence ensued as Warren silently seemed to fume and Logan sipped his beer. Finally, Warren’s curiosity must have gotten the better of him. “So? You’re what? You’re gay?”

Logan winked at him and then toasted him with his bottle. “I don’t just come here for the beer.”

He opened his mouth to say something, but then thought better of it. He continued to steam on his side of the table. Logan thought if he could see a little better in this room, he might notice little trails of smoke coming out of his ears.

“And you,” Logan said, tipping his beer at him again. “All this time I thought you were tapping that little receptionist’s ass.”

Warren looked surprised and then he narrowed his eyes again. “No,” he replied shortly, looking a little mutinous.

Logan finished his beer and gave him a speculative look. “So, you came here to do what tonight? Sit in this corner and brood? Tell me what happened in Atlanta.”

Luke looked like he might just get up and walk instead, but finally, he sighed and took a sip of his own beer. “Nothing happened.”

“Doesn’t look like nothing. You do know what kind of bar this is, don’t you? Let me clue you in, just in case you might have wandered in off the street—guys come here to meet up with and fuck other guys.”

“I know that,” Luke snapped, frowning at him.

“Well then, why are you in this corner, looking like somebody kicked your puppy?”

“You’re such an ass.”

“Tell me anyway.”

Luke’s head shot up in surprise, but before he could fire off some smartass reply, Logan reached out almost casually and took his wrist. He wrapped his fingers around it and applied a little pressure. “Tell me.”

Luke blushed and dropped his gaze, but he made no move to pull away and that told Logan a lot that he needed to know. “I-I had a bad day, that’s all.”

“I know. No matter how much you might hate your old man, he’s still your father, right? That’s supposed to mean something.”

Luke shrugged. “Maybe…I guess so. You know, a stupid part of me thought…when the lawyer called and said he needed to speak to me? I had the idea that maybe my father had changed his mind before he died. Maybe he had regrets about the way he’d left my mom and me, and he’d left me some kind of letter or something.”

“But that wasn’t it?”

Luke gave a bitter laugh. “Hardly. His new wife wanted me to sign a paper saying I wouldn’t come after any part of his retirement benefits or his military life insurance. She said everything should go to her, his house, his truck, everything—on account of her being married to him for the last three years.”

“And did you sign it?”

He nodded. “Of course. I didn’t want anything from him. We were done a long time ago.”

“Well then?”

He looked up and into Logan’s eyes. “It’s hard to explain. For the first few years of my life, I idolized him, you know? Really thought he hung the moon. He was military and never home much when I was little, so I never noticed how he really was.”

“How was he?”

“Drank too much. Abused my mother. He never touched me, because she always got in front of his fists before he could. But she stayed with him all those years.” He shook his head. “He was the one who finally left.”

“Sounds like that was a good thing.”

“It was. For me, anyway. My mom died calling for him.” He threw back his drink and signaled the waiter for another. Logan sat quietly, just letting him get it out. “The worst thing is, that I’m sitting here still mourning him.” He raised eyes that were a little bloodshot. “Or at least the idea of him. God, I don’t know. This is all too fucked up.”

Logan nodded and then stood up, holding out his hand. “Dance with me.”

Warren’s mouth fell open then and he gaped at him. “You must be joking.”

“No. Come on,” he said, jerking his head. “Show me what you got.”

“Sit down, you’re embarrassing yourself,” Warren hissed at him. “Or better yet, move along somewhere else. People are looking at us.”

Logan smiled. “Let ‘em. And I’m going to keep on standing here until you give in.”

Logan could practically see the wheels turning in that head of his, until he finally got up with a huff and nodded toward the dance floor as he sailed past him, ignoring Logan’s outstretched hand. “Well, come on. Let’s get this over with.”

Chuckling a little, Logan followed him out on the floor. Warren turned when he got there and held out his hands in a lead position, his right hand out to allow his partner to step into his arms so he could put his other hand around their waist. Logan grinned and grabbed his waist with both hands instead, pulling him shockingly close, so that he had to tip his head back to look up at him. With no other place to put his hands, Warren had no choice but to lightly touch Logan’s shoulders.

He huffed again, and Logan found he was enjoying himself immensely. He tried to pull away, but Logan held him tightly around the waist and began to move to the music. The music that was playing was soft and bluesy, with a sad, bittersweet undertone and a lot of Acker Bilk clarinet. The song was “Stranger on the Shore.” Not something he would have expected here at this club, but it was nice.

He pulled Warren’s hand down from his shoulder and curled his fingers around it. ‘I feel like I should know your first name if we’re gonna dance together.”

Warren looked up at him in surprise and for a moment, Logan thought he might refuse to tell him. Then he shrugged. “It’s Luke.”

“I like that. It suits you.”

He had been taking a few cautious steps, practically dragging Warren—Luke—with him, but now Luke stopped dead in the middle of the floor and tugged backward. “This is a mistake. We shouldn’t be doing this.”

Logan pulled him back in and settled him in his arms again. “Yes, we should. We are doing it. You just need to relax.”

Luke’s breath was warm against his throat as Logan tightened his hand. He had pulled him up close enough that he could feel his hard body against his. He wasn’t doing much more than swaying to the music at this point, but he added in a few simple steps and was happy to see Luke try to follow him. He was light and effortless in his arms, though his cheek was brushing his chest as he tried to look down at his feet. To keep him from it, Logan whirled him around a few times until he was breathless. The last time, he twirled him out and away from him, holding tightly to his hand so he could reel him back in. He smiled down at his surprised, embarrassed expression and clasped the hand he was holding to his chest. Then he leaned over to press his cheek to Luke’s and kept swaying to the music.


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