This is your last official lesson, Campers. I hope this class has been valuable.
For this lesson, I just want you to see a full scene from Over the Edge by Suzanne Brockmann, the QUEEN of DEEP POV. Please excuse the language—we’ll blame Stan; he’s a Navy SEAL. Enjoy.
It was the full moon’s fault.
It had to be the goddamn full moon.
Senior Chief Petty Officer Stanley Wolchonok steadied himself, holding on to the the side of a pickup truck in the parking lot of the Lady Bug Lounge and praying to whatever god was listening that he wouldn’t throw up.
His fever was spiking. He could feel his entire body break out in a sweat as a flash of intense heat gripped him. God damn, of all the times to get the flu… Of course, there was never a good time to get sick. This just happened to be a worse time than any other, coming back to the States after two relentless months away.
“Senior! Thank God you’re here!”
Stan wasn’t ready to thank anyone for anything—particularly not for his command performance tonight at this cheap-shit, lowlife bar where he hadn’t come by choice in well over two years.
Which didn’t mean he hadn’t been here plenty of times in the past two years.
Cleaning up after whichever dumbass in the team had gone ballistic.
The average dumbass didn’t get more than two strikes before he was out of the SEAL teams—or at least out of the elite Team Sixteen Troubleshooter’s Squad.
Truth was, the average dumbass who was smart enough to become a SEAL learned rather quickly to be neither dumb nor an ass most of the time. But everyone had to blow off steam, particularly after two months away from loved ones, two months filled with high stress and not a hell of a lot of down time.
The married men—and the men whose relationships with their girlfriends had survived these past two very cold and lonely months of separation—were all home in their honeys’ sweet arms tonight. The single guys were in bars like The Lady Bug—an alcohol-doused location where it was extremely easy for the average dumbass to get into some serious trouble.
Tonight’s dumbass was newly promoted Chief Petty Officer Ken Karmody, more affectionately known by his extremely accurate nickname WildCard. Unfortunately, there was nothing even remotely average about him.
This was, without a doubt, the seventeenth strike against him. Another man would’ve been out on his ear a long time ago. Problem was, another man couldn’t do half the things to and with computers that WildCard Karmody could.
And Lieutenant Tom Paoletti, CO of SEAL Team Sixteen, honestly liked the little butthead. Truth was, Stan liked him, too.
But not tonight. He didn’t like him at all right now.
And the million dollar question was, what had WildCard done to live up to his nickname this time?
Chief Frank O’Leary had made the SOS call that had pulled Stan out of bed. A man of few words, O’Leary’s usual lazy drawl was clipped and tight. He’d gotten right to the point. “Senior, WildCard’s in deep shit. Sure could use you at the Bug, ASAP.”
If it had been anyone else calling, Stan would have rolled over and moaned himself back to a feverish, near-sleep state. But O’Leary rarely asked for anything. So Stan had been up and dressed and in his truck inside three minutes.
He forced himself to straighten up now as Petty Officer Second Class Mark Jenkins scurried across the parking lot to him. “O’Leary and Lopez locked Karmody in the bathroom, and Starrett, Muldoon, Rick, Steve and Junior are holding off about twenty jarheads who want to rip him to shreds.”
Stan’s head throbbed. “Sam Starrett and Mike Muldoon are here?” Fuck. They were officers. Despite the fact that Sam was a mustang—an enlisted man who’d gone to OTS and made the leap to officer—and Muldoon damn near worshiped the ground Stan walked on, their presence here made cleaning this up more complicated.
And that wasn’t even taking into consideration the twenty U.S. Marines who wanted—probably for some very good reason—to rip WildCard Karmody to shreds. Twenty Marines. Not two. Not three. Twenty. Beautiful. Just beautiful.
“Starrett swears he’s blinded by the extremely generous, uh, charms of a young lady he met here tonight. He’s seen nothing and will continue to see nothing. And Muldoon promised he’d be out the back door as soon as you arrived,” Jenk reported in his schoolboy tenor. His cartoon-character voice matched the freckles on his deceptively honest face.
Stan managed to walk upright all the way to the Lady Bug’s door. Damn, he was dripping with sweat. The key to defusing a volatile situation like this was to come in looking completely calm and cool. He found his handkerchief, mopped his forehead and prayed again that he wouldn’t yuke on the floor. “What happened?”
“I don’t know exactly, Senior.” Jenk, a veritable fountain of information and official team gossip, was coming up dry. When was the last time that had happened?
Stan cursed the full moon again. “Guess,” he ordered the kid.
“I think WildCard went to see Adele again,” Jenk told him. “And I think it probably didn’t go too well. Again.”
Adele Zakashansky. WildCard’s high school sweetheart who had dumped him without ceremony after years of alleged devotion. At least that was WildCard’s side of the story. The dumping had occurred a mayhem-filled six months ago. If Stan never heard her name again, it would be too soon.
“I was playing pool with Lopez and Rick,” Jenk continued. “I didn’t even see WildCard come in. Then there was this commotion, and I look up and he’s going one on twenty with this bunch of Marines, like he’s Jackie Chan or something. O’Leary was near the bar, and he grabbed WildCard and tossed him into the head. Muldoon got the marines to agree to a temporary ceasefire. But it’s only temporary.”
God bless Chief Frank O’Leary and Ensign Mike Muldoon. “Anything broken?”
“A big mirror on the wall,” Jenk said. “A coupla chairs.” He laughed. “And a lot of Marine balls. The Card’s a wild man.”
The door opened and Mike Muldoon peeked out. “Senior! Thank God. You better get in here. The manager’s about five seconds from calling the police, WildCard’s shouting about getting out of the bathroom and finishing what he started, and the Marines are more than ready to rumble.”
Stan mopped his face one more time and stepped inside. “I got it from here, Muldoon,” he told the younger man.
“Oh, wow, Senior, you look really terrible. Man, you got the ‘flu,” Muldoon realized. He had one of those too-young, too-handsome faces with big expressive blue eyes that gave away everything he was feeling. And he wondered why he never won at poker. “You should be home, in bed—”
“And you need to get out of here,” Stan said bluntly. “I can’t fix this for Karmody with you here.”
Muldoon looked as if he were about to cry. “But—”
“Get lost. Sir.”
Muldoon was no dummy, and with one more pained look on his pretty face, he vanished.
Stan glanced around the room. Marines, manager, man in the bathroom. The manager on duty tonight was Kevin Franklin–he knew the guy well. He was an asshole, but it was a ‘devil you know’ situation—better than dealing with an unknown.
Yes indeed, it was WildCard Karmody’s lucky night—Stan could fix this. Provided he stayed on his feet and didn’t barf on anyone.
Step one. Get the Marines out of here. With them gone, the manager would be less inclined to call in the local police. Stan aimed himself at the surly group.
The highest ranking Marine was only a corporal—Jesus, they were all children. That was either going to make it really easy or really hard.
“Tell Franklin to hold on,” Stan murmured to Jenk. “Ask him—pretty please—to give me five minutes. Ten tops. Tell him I’m going to clear the room then see what I can do to make acceptable reparations for the damage that’s been done.”
Jenk slipped away.
“How about we all step outside, Corporal?” Stan said to a big beefy kid who couldn’t have been more than twenty-three tender years old. “I’m Senior Chief Stan Wolchonok, U.S. Navy, SEAL Team Sixteen. I’m not sure exactly what there is to say here, but a little fresh air can’t hurt, huh?”
“Why should we be the ones to leave?” Another kid, even bigger and beefier—and more drunk than Corporal Biceps—stepped forward. “That stupid little shit started it.”
Stan could hear WildCard—the stupid little shit in question—howling from the men’s room, banging on the door and demanding to be let out.
“We’ll go into the parking lot,” another Marine suggested, “if you send him into the parking lot, too.”
Stan sighed. “Can’t do that, boys. If you want to fight him,” he said, “and I really don’t recommend it–he’s small, but he’s fast and he doesn’t know the meaning of the word quit—what do you say I call your CO and we set up a time for your best guy to meet Chief Karmody in a boxing ring? Nice and clean, everyone sober, no one goes to jail afterwards for drunk and disorderly.”
Another of the Marines, a kid with recent Cro-Magnon ancestry, sidled forward, moving like a fighter. This was definitely their best guy, right here, in person. What’dya know?
Stan sized him up in one glance. Cocky and strong but inexperienced. Too inexperienced to know that inexperience could put you on the mat, facedown, lights out, faster than a ref could blink.
“I’d rather fight you, pops,” the kid said, so full of himself, Stan could imagine his head exploding from an over-inflated ego. Blam.
“You’d be more of a challenge,” the kid continued. He grinned. “You look like you might even go a full two rounds before I knocked you out.”
His dumbass friends laughed and nudged each other. They were on top of the world–but theirs was a very, very small planet. They were just too young and stupid to know it yet.
Kid Cro-Magnon edged closer, invading Stan’s personal space. “And I say we do it right here. Right now.”
Ah, crap. Stan didn’t want to fight. Not four days from now in a ring, and especially not tonight. Tonight, all he wanted was to go home and go to bed.
He breathed on the kid, hoping he was contagious. Unfortunately whichever strain of the flu this was, it wasn’t fast-acting.
From all corners of the room, Stan could feel his men watching him. He could hear WildCard Karmody still shouting from the head. Christ, he still had to make things square with the asshole manager, and then talk Karmody down from whatever emotional ledge he was teetering on.
Cro-Magnon loomed over him, stinking of gin, and Stan knew in a flash that this was the perfect time to choose speed over finesse. Finesse required too much talking, and damn, his throat was sore.
“Fine. Let’s do it. Someone say go,” Stan said, his gaze never leaving Cro-Magnon.
“Go,” Jenk shot back, good man.
A quick jab, a hard uppercut, and an elbow to the back of the head. Stan stepped back, and Cave Boy was down and not coming up any time soon.
It would’ve been even more effective if Stan hadn’t been sweating as he stood there, light as a dancer on the balls of his feet. Light-headed from fever, too, but those fools didn’t know that. He looked at the other jarheads, giving them his best dead-eye gaze. Cold and emotionless. An absolute machine. “Who’s next? Come on, line up, girls. I’ll take you one at a time if that’s what you want.”
He definitely had their attention. He had his SEALs’ attention, too.
“Stay back, Junior,” he said evenly, without turning around to see who was shuffling his feet back behind him. He didn’t have to turn. He knew his men.
And they knew him. But right now he’d surprised them because although he was a fighter by nature, in the past, he’d usually always preferred to talk things out.
The younger Marines were looking to the corporal for direction, and the Marine corporal, thank God, still had a few brain cells working. He stared down at his platoon’s boxing champ, unconscious and drooling on the dirty barroom floor.
Stan watched while the corporal slowly did the math. If Stan could take their best man out in one point three seconds, then…
“What do you say I call your CO and we set up a time for your best guy to meet Karmody in a boxing ring?” Stan said again.
The corporal nodded jerkily, looking from Stan to the bathroom door, no doubt remembering Karmody with his mad scientist hair and his lean build, no doubt thinking that in the ring, their guy would be able to give him a thrashing.
If Stan didn’t have the flu, he would’ve smiled. They were in for one big surprise. “What do you say you take Sleeping Beauty here and go on back to the base?” he suggested. Relentless repetition was usually always needed when dealing with alcohol and idiots. “And tomorrow morning we’ll set up that boxing match.”
“Well…” Corporal finally said.
“Great,” Stan bulldozed over him. “We’ve got a deal.” He would’ve shaken the corporal’s hand if his own hadn’t been so damn sweaty. All he needed at this point was for the kid to think he was scared, so he tucked his hands behind his back in a modified parade rest. “Move it on out,” he ordered.
Two of the marines grabbed Cro-Magnon and they all shuffled away.
The room seemed to take a collective sigh of relief as the door closed behind them. Not that there were a lot of people left. A few bikers who looked disappointed that there wasn’t going to be a brawl. A pair of women eyeing Jay Lopez and Frank O’Leary as the SEALs stood holding the men’s room door tightly closed. A few couples making out in the darkness of the corner booths, ignoring the rest of the world.
There was a time Stan had sat in one of those corner booths himself, getting very familiar with women who didn’t care that he didn’t look like Mel Gibson, who didn’t care that he left town at the drop of a hat and sometimes didn’t bother to come back. Candy, Julia, Molly, Val. Laura. Lisa. Linda. He’d met them all if not here then in a dive very similar to this one. He should be feeling nostalgic, not nauseous.
But shit, all he wanted was to go home.
And he was only up to step two.
Lieutenant junior grade Sam Starrett intercepted him on his way to the bar and the waiting manager. Starrett had his arm around a woman who had, quite possibly, the biggest breasts in the world. He was grinning and a little tipsy—if that word could be used to describe a big bad Navy SEAL.
The woman whispered something in his ear, brushing her enormous jugs against him and Starrett laughed. Obviously, he thought he’d found the right kind of solace for whatever had been eating him up these past few months.
“Senior Chief Stan Wolchonok,” Starrett said, “meet the marvelous Miss Mary Lou Morrison.”
Damn, did he look like he was here to attend a party? Starrett had had more to drink than Stan had thought if he couldn’t see that Stan was dead on his feet. “Ma’am.” He managed to nod politely. He had to work to look her in the eye instead of staring, hypnotized, down into that amazing Grand Canyon of cleavage.
He solved the problem by glaring at Starrett. “You shouldn’t be here right now. Sir.”
And the recently promoted Lieutenant, junior grade, also shouldn’t have been playing with fire by starting something with this Mary Lou Morrison. She was too young, too pretty, too desperately hopeful. While Starrett was looking only for a night in her bed, she was looking for a ring. Someone was going to end up disappointed.
“Yeah, I know, Senior,” Starrett said in his cowboy twang, made thicker by all he’d had to drink, “but I do love to watch you work. And I’m not the only one impressed. Mary Lou’s sister Janine over there was wondering what you’re doing later.”
Starrett gestured with his head toward the other side of the room, where a woman was standing. She gave Stan a little wave. Ah yes, she was definitely Mary Lou’s sister.
A little bit older, not quite as pretty, but just as completely, amazingly stacked. She approached, but Stan escaped, nodding at the younger sister. “Excuse me. I need to speak to Kevin Franklin.” He turned and ran.
But Janine was crafty. “Hi—Stan, isn’t it?” She’d managed to circumnavigate her sister and Starrett and cut Stan off before he reached the bar, blocking his route. “I couldn’t help noticing you.”
She was sober. Amazing. Her eyes were blue and warm and she sipped what looked to be plain soda pop. And he’d been wrong. She was the prettier sister. Maybe not on the surface. But she was certainly the less desperate sister, and he’d always found lack of desperation to be particularly appealing.
“How’s that for a come-on line?” she continued. Her gaze was frank and open and flat out admiring, and her smile was friendly. He almost felt handsome. “You have any time later to pull up a chair and pretend to get to know me?”
Stan had to laugh at that. “Tempting, but believe me, ma’am, you don’t want what I’ve got.”
Her laughter was low, musical. “Want to bet?”
Oh, mama. “Seriously—Janine, right?” He lowered his voice. “Janine, I’ve got the flu and I’ve got about twenty more minutes, tops, before I’m going to fall over.”
She lowered her voice, too, moved closer. “Oh, you poor thing. Then you need someone to take care of you, don’t you? I make an awesome chicken soup, I’ll have you know.”
Someone to take care of him? “I don’t think–”
“Well then, Stan, maybe you have a friend you could introduce me to. I’m not looking for long term, but this is a position I’d like to fill immediately. Forgive my bluntness, but we’re both adults and we both know why people come to a place like this, don’t we?”
Her flatout honesty made him laugh again. “Truth is, I came here to talk to the manager and get my guy out of the men’s room without him hurting anyone or himself. It wasn’t by choice.”
She bulldozed over him as completely as he’d run down the marine corporal, reaching up to feel his forehead. Her hand was cool and soft against his too-hot skin. “God, you are burning up.”
He stepped back, away from her. Guinness Book of World Records breasts and pretty eyes be damned—he didn’t want her touching him. Lately he didn’t seem to want any woman touching him, except Teresa Howe.
Christ, where had that come from?
The fever. That was one goddamn feverish thought, no question. Because helo pilot and Naval Reservist Lieutenant junior grade Teri Howe was the last woman on earth who’d want to touch him. God, talk about beauty and the beast. Yeah, a woman like her only hooked up with a guy like him in a fairy tale.
And while his life was far from dull, it was no freaking fairy tale, that was for sure.
Meanwhile, he’d hurt Janine’s feelings. “I’m sorry, but right now I really need to talk to—”
“It’s all right,” she said quietly. “You don’t have to explain. It was nice meeting you.”
Shit. Now she was walking away. What was he doing? She was pretty and funny and built like a Playboy Bunny and it had been months since he’d gotten laid. And yet he’d reacted to her touch as if she had the plague. What was he doing? Saving himself for Teri Howe? This fever was definitely addling his brain.
“Senior Chief.” Kevin Franklin, the Bug’s manager, called to him from behind the bar. “What are we going to do about that broken mirror?”
Ah, hell. Stan turned to him, forcing himself back to the business at hand, dismissing Janine as absolutely as he was usually able to dismiss all thoughts of ever being touched by Teri Howe.
Old Kev was more of an asshole than usual tonight. It was a pity Stan couldn’t throw a few punches to shut him up, the way he’d done with that marine. Instead, he lived through an endless list of complaints and a whole lot of whining, entertaining himself by trying to guess exactly when his knees would finally give out, and what his men would do when that happened.
Stan tried his hardest not to listen, but there were a few things he couldn’t help but hear. A, Franklin still wanted to call the police. And B, he was tired of bar fights on his watch, tired of WildCard Karmody in particular.
That made two of ’em.
“Here’s the deal,” Stan said flatly, when he finally got a chance to get a word in edgewise. “You don’t press charges, and Karmody pays for the mirror and the chairs, and he never comes into the Bug again when you’re working the night shift.”
“He doesn’t come in when I’m working any shift,” Franklin countered, just as Stan had known he would. Good, let him feel as if he’d won a hard bargain.
“Well…” Stan pretended to think about it. “I guess so. I guess we got a deal.” He held out his hand for the man to shake.
“Karmody’s not going to go for this,” Franklin warned.
“I’ll handle Karmody.”
Which was step three.
Christ, this was the part where Stan would go into the men’s and sit down on the tile floor and talk to WildCard. “What happened this time, Karmody?” Through clenched teeth: “Nothing happened, Senior.” A sigh from Stan. “Don’t bullshit me, Kenny. I know you went to see Adele.” “Fuck Adele!” Back and forth they’d go, with WildCard venting his anger, ranting and railing about whatever injustice Adele had done this time, until he was all ranted out and ready to go home and pass out.
Which was what Stan was ready to do right now.
Tomorrow WildCard would wake up all contrite and hungover. Stan would call him in to his office, and do some ranting and railing of his own. WildCard was going to be feeling the repercussions of tonight’s little hell party for a long time.
Stan made the trip from the bar to the men’s room on legs that were leaden. Janine was still there, still watching him. He couldn’t look at her, couldn’t do more than put one foot in front of the other.
O’Leary was still guarding the door, but WildCard had stopped his pounding and shouting. It was quiet in there. Maybe the son of a bitch had done too much flailing around, knocked himself out from hitting his head on the tile walls.
No, that was too much to hope for, too much to ask.
O’Leary opened the door for him, and Stan went inside and… Oh, Christ.
“Shut the door and don’t let anyone in here,” Stan ordered O’Leary.
WildCard was crying.
He was sitting on the floor, arms around knees that were up close to his chest, head down, body shaking, sobbing as if his heart were breaking. Which it probably was, poor bastard.
Adele Zakashansky had no idea what she had lost by ditching him the way she had six months ago. Yes, WildCard had the ability to be completely obnoxious. Give him enough time, and he’d probably get on Mother Teresa’s or Ghandi’s nerves, but in all honesty, the man had a heart the size of California.
“Shit,” Stan breathed, lowering himself gingerly down onto the floor next to him. He spoke gently. There’d be plenty of time tomorrow to yell at the man. “Why do you keep going to see her, Kenny? You know, you’re doing this to yourself.”
WildCard didn’t answer. Stan hadn’t really expected him to.
He put his hand on the kid’s back, feeling completely inadequate here. Even when he wasn’t fighting the flu, he wasn’t the cry-on-my-shoulder type. He didn’t do hugs, rarely touched the men in his team unless he had to—at least not much beyond the occasional high five or slap on the shoulder.
“She got a restraining order, Senior,” WildCard lifted his tearstained face to tell him with the much too careful enunciation of the extremely drunk. He looked about five years old and completely bewildered. “How could she even think that I would hurt her? I love her.”
Stan felt like weeping himself, his head throbbing in sympathy. God, being in love sucked.
“Yeah,” he said. “I know that, Ken, and you know that, but maybe you haven’t done such a great job over the past few months communicating that to Adele, you know? When you come at her all loud and angry, and completely shit-faced, too, well, that’s got to be a little upsetting for her. I think you need to try to see it from her point of view, huh? She tells you it’s over, and two weeks later, you’ve parked your jeep in her flower garden at four in the morning, waking up the entire neighborhood by playing Michael Jackson at full volume on your car stereo.”
“It was the Jackson 5,” WildCard corrected him. “I Want You Back. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“And punching out her new boyfriend at the movie theater?”
“Yeah, that wasn’t such a good idea.”
“Calling her every fifteen minutes all night long? From Africa?”
“I just wanted to hear her voice.”
Stan looked at him.
WildCard laughed. “Yeah, all right. I knew he was over there, with her. Goddamn Ronald from MIT. Getting it on for the first time. I wanted to make sure the evening was memorable for them.” He wiped his eyes. “She’s not going to take me back, is she?”
There was still hope in WildCard’s heart. Hope that Stan crushed ruthlessly by flatly telling him, “No, she’s not. Not tonight, not next week, not ever.”
Hearing those words didn’t make WildCard dissolve into more tears. Instead, he wiped his nose on his sleeve. Sat up a little straighter. “I’m so damn tired of being alone, Senior Chief. I mean, when I was with Adele we weren’t actually together that often, but she emailed me every day. I knew she was thinking about me.” He looked at Stan with the pathetic earnestness of the truly drunk. “I just want to know someone’s thinking about me. Is that really too much to ask?”
Stan looked at the kid. No, he wasn’t a kid—he was well into his twenties, he was a full grown man. He just freaking acted like a kid most of the time. With his dark eyes and angular face, Ken Karmody wasn’t a bad looking man. If you didn’t pay too much attention to his Dr. Frankenstein haircut.
I’m not looking for long term… Janine’s pretty eyes and knockout body flashed to mind, and Stan knew what he had to do. He felt a brief flare of regret, but it passed quickly enough.
“You been with anyone else?” he asked WildCard. “You know, since Adele?”
WildCard looked away, looked embarrassed. Shook his head no, like there was something to be ashamed of about that.
“Maybe you need to,” Stan said gently. “Maybe hooking up with someone for awhile will put this thing with Adele into perspective. Yes, she was an important part of your life for a few years, but now that she’s gone, your life’s not over. There are plenty of women who would love to spend their time thinking about you.” He pulled himself to his feet, amazed he could still stand. “Come on, let’s get out of here, go rejoin the world.”
WildCard pushed himself off the floor. “Senior Chief, I have to be straight with you. I was fighting before. I’m not sure exactly, but I think either the police or a whole bunch of jarheads might be waiting for me out in the bar.”
“Franklin didn’t call the police,” Stan told him. “I took care of him—and the jarheads, too. Of course, you’re going to have to pay for damages.”
New hope lit his eyes. “You mean, I’m not going to be arrested?”
“No. You’re going to have to meet some seven feet tall marine in a boxing ring in a few days. And you can’t come back to the Bug if Kevin Franklin is on duty. Not ever again. We’ll go over this again, at length, tomorrow in my office.”
Out of all the things Stan had said, it was only this last that gave WildCard pause. Tomorrow’s little meeting wasn’t going to be any fun for either of them. Stan was going to deliver an ultimatum. He gave him a small preview because although he was going to make sure WildCard was delivered safely home, there were still several hours before dawn, and the kid was a supreme dumbass.
“You need to know, Karmody, no shit, read my lips because this is serious: You break that restraining order, you’re on your own. No senior chief to the rescue. It will be Lieutenant Paoletti who comes to see you in jail and he will not be a happy man. And what he will tell you is goodbye and good luck. And good luck will be surviving your eighteen months to three years in prison and then getting a job fixing computers in the back room of some CompUSA, provided you can find one with a manager who hires convicted felons. Do you understand what I am telling you?”
WildCard nodded, a dazed look in his eyes, and Stan knew he’d hit on the kid’s worst nightmare. Good.
He pushed open the men’s room door and WildCard followed him out into the bar. Home—and his bed—were so close, he could almost smell it. Only one more thing to do.
Sam Starrett had the younger sister out on the dance floor, taking advantage of a slow dance to get in a full body embrace. Janine stood by the jukebox, as if entranced by the list of songs, still sipping her soda.
Stan headed toward her. “Janine. That position still available?”
She looked up, looked from him to WildCard, noted the fact that the younger man’s eyes were still red from crying. Her own gaze softened slightly before she glanced back at Stan, awareness and wisdom in her eyes, and he knew he was doing the right thing.
“Yes, it is.”
WildCard didn’t have a clue what was going on, still partially locked in the horror of that alternate reality Stan had described.
“I want you to meet my friend, Chief Ken Karmody of SEAL Team Sixteen,” Stan said to Janine.
She looked at WildCard again. “I saw you earlier, with all those marines. You didn’t back down when they insulted you. You must be either really brave or really stupid, sailor.”
“Really brave,” Stan said at the exact same moment WildCard answered, “Really stupid,” and she laughed.
She had a really nice, musical laugh, and WildCard woke up a little and actually looked at her. His eyes widened.
“You ever take a tour of the naval base?” Stan asked her.
She took a sip of her soda. “I don’t believe that I have.”
“Would you like to? Tomorrow?”
Janine looked at WildCard again, this time checking him out not quite as obviously as he was hypnotized by her breasts. She smiled. “Sure. Why not? How about right after church? 11:30?”
“Great,” Stan said. “I’ll have Chief Karmody here meet you at the gate.”
“Me?” WildCard said in surprise.
Stan pushed him toward the door.
“I’ll be there.” Janine’s eyes sent him a very definite message: Your loss.
It probably was. But right now he didn’t want anything but his bed. And Teri Howe. He cursed this fever again. Stop thinking about her.
“Did you see the way she was looking at me?” WildCard asked as they stepped into the parking lot. The air wasn’t any cooler, but it was less smoky. “Senior, if I go back in there maybe she’ll—”
“Tomorrow at 1130 is early enough. That way you can impress her with your sparkling sobriety.”
“Did you see her? She was hot, and I think she likes me! I know she likes me!” WildCard did a victory dance, punching the air. “Yeah! The hell with you, Adele! The hell with you!”
Mike Muldoon slipped down from where he’d been sitting on the hood of Stan’s truck, staring at WildCard with amazement. He looked at Stan with something that normally would be uncomfortably similar to hero-worship. But right now, Stan appreciated the fact that Muldoon saw him through rose-colored superhero glasses—the kind that obscured the greenish tinge Stan knew was on his face.
“My God, Senior Chief,” Muldoon said, “you really can fix anything, can’t you?”
“Absolutely,” Stan said, getting into his truck and starting the engine with a roar, praying that Muldoon wouldn’t see the way his hands were shaking.
Christ, he was hurting. And he still had to call O’Leary when he got home, ask him to rouse WildCard in the morning, get him down to the front gate by 1130, order him to meet Stan in his office at 1300. Stan would ream him a new asshole then, using Janine Morrison to provide additional motivation to toe the line. He put down the window. “Do me a favor and get Karmody safely home.”
“Of course, Senior Chief. But what about—”
“I’m fine,” Stan lied as he put the truck into gear and pulled out of the driveway. No way was he letting Muldoon drive him home. His house was off-limits to the men in his team—even to Muldoon who was the closest thing to a best friend he’d ever had, despite their age difference, despite the fact that Muldoon was an officer and Stan was enlisted.
Stan made it all the way down the street and around the corner, holding tightly to the steering wheel, before he had to pull over.
And then he just sat there, shaking and sweating, sick as a dog and no longer needing to hide it.
God damn. That had been close. But it was okay. The illusion was intact. He’d gotten lucky again. Mighty Senior Chief Stan Wolchonok remained invincible, unstoppable, immortal. As Muldoon had said, he could fix any mistake, repair any screwup, find creative solutions to any problem, damn near walk on water if he had to.
Yeah, and if he didn’t watch out, he was going to start believing his own hype.
Stan laughed at himself as he sat there, his teeth chattering from the sudden chill that gripped him. It took him, yes, him—the mighty senior chief—four tries to turn the heat up to high.
It was one thing to fool the men in his team. It was his job to do that. But there was no way he was going to fool himself into thinking he was some kind of god. No, he knew damn well what would happen if he truly tried to walk on water.
He’d sink like a stone.
It took him nearly an hour to make the five-minute trip home.
But he made it. On his own.