Author: L.A. Witt
Publisher: Samhain Publishing
Format: ebook, paperback
“Go hike to Hiji Falls this weekend,” MA1 Randall had said in the emergency room on Friday night. “Take some pictures. Post them on Facebook. Make a few offhand comments about the rocks being slick, and you fell and busted your ass.”
“Or my face?” I’d asked dryly.
He’d shrugged. “The rocks are slick, and it’s steep. Trust me, it can be done.”
I hadn’t gone anywhere on Saturday. Partly sleeping off the long night, partly not wanting to venture outside the safety of my apartment. This morning, though, I decided I should put Randall’s advice to good use before I went back to work tomorrow.
Parked in front of the half-translated sign at the trailhead, I glanced at myself in the rearview. The bandage over my eyebrow and the welt on my cheekbone glared back. From this angle, I couldn’t see the mark on my throat, but it throbbed enough to keep me aware of it. Every time I moved my hand, the raw skin on my knuckles burned. Skepticism swelled in my gut. Would anyone really buy that all this shit had happened in anything less than a fight?
Hopefully, they would. And if my dignity had to take a hit so my career didn’t end before it had begun, then so be it.
I sighed and got out of my car.
Though it was still early in the day, the Okinawan heat and humidity were already in full swing. Seemed like a good day to hit the beach and maybe try my hand at snorkeling instead of hiking, but the stitches above my eyebrow begged to differ.
“Keep it clean and dry,” the doc had emphatically said before discharging me.
Hiking it was.
Technically, I didn’t have to go to Hiji Falls. There were any number of places around the island where I could spend the day and then post on Facebook that I’d busted my ass on some rocks.
But I was rattled and didn’t have it in me to think of some other destination besides the one the cop had recommended. That, and I was still terrified of someone finding out what had really happened, and on some irrational level, I’d convinced myself that following his instructions to the letter would keep my secret on the down-low where it belonged. Trust the Naval Academy to beat that into my skull.
I started up the trail. I’d heard the kilometer-long hike to Hiji was a steep one, and it lived up to legend. The short stretch from the parking area to the trailhead was good and flat, but then it inclined sharply as it led into the thick forest.
I barely noticed the scenery. My legs burned as I followed the shady trail—and endless staircases—up and down steep slopes and around sharp bends and switchbacks, but my mind was a million miles away.
Friday night shouldn’t have happened the way it did. The warning signs had been there from the get-go. Glenn was drunk and so was I, but I’d been coherent. He’d been a little too pushy, a little too in my space, and no amount of haven’t-been-laid-in-too-damned-long should have blinded me to those red flags.
Idiot that I was, I’d left Palace Habu with him, and that was when things had gone downhill.
“Why don’t we grab a cab and go back to my place?”
“Uh, actually I’d— Let go of my arm.”
Fifteen minutes later, I was in the back of a cab on my way to the hospital at Camp Lester with a handful of cocktail napkins pressed against the cut above my eyebrow that would not stop bleeding. Freaked out. Rattled. Mind full of all the things that could have happened to me if I hadn’t landed that punch just right, if I hadn’t managed to knock him back long enough to get up and bolt for the end of the alley.
Today, that panic lingered beneath my skin, and God knew I’d spent all of yesterday and last night obsessing over every way things could have happened, scaring myself shitless with all kinds of possibilities, but as I walked down the narrow path toward Hiji Falls, the fear was mostly gone. Now I was angry. Fucking furious.
Not just at Glenn, but at myself.
I was a goddamned second-degree black belt. I had titles in kickboxing and jiu-jitsu. Gold fucking medals, and not just at local competitions. I didn’t get my ass handed to me.
Grinding my teeth, I stuffed my hands into the pockets of my shorts, brushing my raw knuckles on the seam. I walked faster, as if I could march the fear and anger right out of myself.
My dad had put me in martial arts when I was a kid. The minute he suspected I was gay, he’d enrolled me in every form of self-defense imaginable because he’d been scared to death someone would try to beat me up when they found out. Whether or not it had been necessary was debatable. All I knew was the first time someone took a swing at me, I was fourteen, and no one who heard about that incident ever tried anything after that, no matter how they felt about gays.
And then the first time someone really threatened me, someone who intended to do God only knew what once he overpowered me, I’d just barely gotten away from him.
How fucking ironic. My dad had made sure I was extensively trained so I could protect myself from homophobes, and the one who finally bloodied my knuckles and split my eyebrow was another damned gay man.
A chill beneath my skin made me shudder, and I broke out in goose bumps in spite of the heat. Continuing down a flat, winding stretch of trail, I alternated between being on the verge of tears—from shame and fear—and wanting to punch something. My pride was as busted up as my face and my hand, but it wasn’t just that. The guy scared me. He did. I couldn’t pretend he didn’t. I’d had training, but so had he. Even the cockiest black belt doesn’t take his own skills for granted against a Marine, and even drunk, that Marine had gotten me flat on my back on the pavement.
All the way up the trail, as it rose and fell and took me deeper into the forest, I couldn’t stop thinking about what might have happened the other night. What all too easily could have happened.
And then what? Was I really going to broadcast to everyone in my chain of command that I’d been in a gay bar on Gate Two Street? Everybody knew the clubs on Gate Two Street could be sketchy, especially the ones down back alleys.
Even if we hadn’t met in one of those clubs, I suspected Glenn had the upper hand if our chains of command got involved. He had had just enough lines on his face and gray in his buzz cut to suggest he had a good fifteen years or more on me. Older men were fine and good, but an older American man on this island meant he was stationed here, which meant if he was an officer, he outranked the shit out of me. Even if he was enlisted, he’d have almost an entire career’s worth of credibility over an ensign straight out of the academy. Yeah, maybe I could take his career down with allegations of assault—sexual or otherwise—but that didn’t mean mine wouldn’t go down with his.
I shook my head and kept walking.
Up ahead, a laminated piece of white paper nailed to a post caught my eye. It was in English, so I stopped to read it.
Call Point: This is the place where the electric wave of the mobile phone reaches.
I pulled out my cell phone. Sure enough, I had a few bars. From here on out, I guessed, that wouldn’t be the case.
Eyeing the trail ahead of me, I couldn’t help feeling a little nervous about moving out into a cell phone dead zone. Glenn was probably sleeping off a hangover somewhere, maybe icing his lip or something, but part of me was sure that the second I lost my ability to call for help, he’d be right there waiting for me around the next bend.
Aiden. For Christ’s sake. Just keep going.
I closed my eyes. My sensei had taught me a dozen ways to center myself, to calm myself, and I applied them one after the other. Breathing. Concentrating.
When I opened my eyes again, Glenn was still lurking in the shadows, but the irrational panic was under control. I rolled my shoulders a few times and continued past the sign.
In an effort to ignore Glenn, I tried to concentrate on the scenery. To my surprise, I started to relax a little. It was hard to stay tense and stressed in an environment like this once I actually let myself take it all in. Though the tropical sun was brutal today, the thick canopy of branches and leaves kept the trail comfortably shaded. Beside the trail, a narrow creek wound lazily between trees and boulders, which added a nice backdrop to all the birds singing—or shrieking, in some cases—above me.
The narrow trail had been painstakingly kept, the edges manicured and the staircases well-repaired, which was a nice switch from some of the places I’d hiked back in the States. Nothing wrecked a great hike like twisting an ankle on a rotted step. Though I supposed it would add some credibility to my cover story.
A few other hikers passed me on their way back down. Not a single American among them, but I supposed that wasn’t a surprise. Commander Connelly and some of the other guys in the office had mentioned that Americans weren’t prone to leaving the bases. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to stay on base all the time. If I wanted to be contained in a small area, I’d have requested orders to a damned ship.
The falls were close. The deep creek beside the trail ran faster and with more force, and the distinctive sound of crashing, rushing water was louder with every bend in the trail. The closer I got to the falls, the more aware I was of the sweat and humidity dampening my skin and the fierce heat gnawing on the back of my neck. A dozen signs at the beginning of the trail had warned against swimming up here, but I was pretty sure I could be forgiven for bending—okay, breaking—a few rules when it was this hot.
At the very least, I was taking off my boots and putting my feet in the water. Just the thought of that made me feel cooler all over. Whether my cover story ended up holding water—so to speak—or not, this hike had been a damned good idea. I felt better. A lot better. Glenn wasn’t here, I wasn’t in any danger, and this environment had shaken some of the stress out of me, replacing the tension with a satisfying ache of muscles having to work.
The trail went up again, and then started down, and there were the falls. Gorgeous white water spilled over moss-covered rocks and into a wide pool.
And that was when I saw the most gorgeous set of shirtless shoulders I’d ever seen.
The guy was swimming on the other side of a No Swimming sign. Well, not really swimming. More like wading. In the water, anyway, in spite of the emphatic cartoon characters warning of snakes, slick rocks, falling stones and whatever other dangers lurked up here.
His back was to me, which gave me the most jaw-dropping view of those broad, wet shoulders. His soaked black shorts held on to his hips and ass just right. Tall, lanky—no way in hell he was much older than me.
He straightened a little and slowly turned around.
Oh. My God.
Definitely not older than me. Probably a few years younger, actually. Twenty, twenty-one tops. Even from here, as I came down the trail on legs that were suddenly not terribly steady, his blue eyes were…disarming.
As far as I could tell, he was American—definitely not Japanese—but there was no way he was military. Not unless he was at least a couple of weeks into some extended leave. His dark hair was too long, the ends curling at the base of his neck.
I stopped at the end of the trail, standing between a couple of rocks near the fence at the edge of the pool. He was maybe ten feet away now, close enough I could see droplets of water sliding down the grooves in his lean, smooth muscles. There was a little bit of dark hair plastered against his chest and his tanned arms, but not a lot.
And he was looking right back at me, eyes locked on mine.
“Hi.” I smiled, hoping he’d buy that it was the heat and the hike that had turned my cheeks as red as I was sure they were.
“Hi.” He returned the smile. “Another brave one bests the trail and the snakes and makes it to the top.”
I laughed. “I didn’t see any snakes. Did you?”
“Not this time.” His lips quirked. “Were you watching the ground?”
“Where else would I look?”
He gestured above my head. “They hang out in the trees during the day.”
Slowly, I lifted my gaze. There weren’t any low-hanging branches right here, thank God, but I realized the trail had been shaded almost the entire way. And here I’d been worried about a drunk Marine jumping out at me. “Oh. Awesome. Glad someone mentioned that.”
Laughing, the guy in the water waded closer. “Just messing with you. They do hang in the trees, but I’ve been up here a million times and never seen one.”
“You ever seen one at all?”
“Sure.” He shrugged. “You do enough hiking, you’re going to sooner or later. But as long as they’re coiled up in the trees, you’re fine. They come at you in the grass, they’ll ruin your day.”
“So, watching the ground…is a good idea?”
“Always. But, you know, keep an eye on the trees.” He rested his hip against a boulder. “Nice hike, isn’t it?”
Truth be told, I don’t remember.
“It’s a nice trail.” I glanced back at the visible twist of rocks and stairs. “I’ve definitely hiked worse.”
“Recently?” He arched an eyebrow.
“What do you mean?”
He gestured at his face, and I was suddenly hyperaware of the bandages and marks on my face. More heat rushed into my cheeks, and I dropped my gaze. “Oh. That.”
“Sorry,” he said quietly. “I…didn’t realize it…”
“Don’t worry about it.” I waved a hand and looked him in the eye. “It’s a long story.”
Awkward silence in three…two…
“You going to get in the water?” He motioned at the enticing pool.
“I, um…” I glanced at the No Swimming or Wading sign.
“Don’t worry about that.” He gestured dismissively. “Seriously, nobody cares.”
It wasn’t that I was worried about the sign and anyone who might happen along to enforce it. I’d already planned on getting in the water anyway. I just hadn’t banked on getting into the same water as someone who was making my legs shake worse than the hilly kilometer I’d just hiked.
Just get in the water, idiot.
I untied the laces and slipped off my boots. Then I emptied my pockets, leaving my car keys and wallet inside one of my boots. I started to pull off my shirt but hesitated. Though the trail was shaded, there was plenty of sunlight up here, and I’d forgotten to pack any sunscreen.
So I left my shirt on. I lifted one of the ropes, ducked under it, and stepped into the water.
And immediately pulled my foot back. “Shit.”
He laughed. “Cold?”
“Just a bit.” I tried again, dipping my toe in. Then my whole foot. A little at a time, I eased into the water, and by the time I was in up to my knees, I’d adapted to the cold. After the hike to get up here, it felt great.
After I’d waded a little deeper, I scooped some water into my hands, ignoring the way my raw knuckles burned, and leaned down to pour it over the back of my neck. As much as I wanted to splash it on my face, the doc had been pretty emphatic about keeping the stitches clean and dry. Given the microbes that could be lurking in river water…
Though I’d probably already invited those in via the cuts on my knuckles, but whatever.
I turned toward him. “Man, my legs are tired already. You wouldn’t think that hike would be that tough. It’s not even a mile.”
“Except it’s all up and down, up and down.” He made a gesture like a roller coaster. “We should all be glad it’s not even a mile.”
I laughed. “No kidding.” Legs still in the water, I sat on one of the rocks and looked up at the falls. “Wow, this really is amazing.”
“It is.” He turned to me. “This your first time up here?”
I nodded. “I haven’t been on the island long.”
“Yep. Just transferred here recently. How long have you been here? On Okinawa, I mean. Not”—I gestured at the falls—“here.”
“A few years.” He extended his hand. “Name’s Connor, by the way.”
His hand was cool and damp from the water, but still hot from his body heat. As we shook hands, our eyes met, and they locked, and…fuck. Wow, he really was hot. Especially up close. Those blue eyes were unreal.
I released his hand, and as we both sat back, he gave me the oddest little smile, one that seemed caught somewhere between shy and cocky. Before I could figure out which, he broke eye contact and busied himself leaning over to scoop some water onto his arms. It was hard to tell, but I thought his cheeks might’ve turned pink.
“So do you come up here a lot?” I asked.
“Every now and then.” Connor splashed some more water onto his arms and then leaned back against the rock. “It’s one of my favorite places on the island.”
“I can see why. Where else do you like to go?”
“You can’t really go wrong on this rock. I’ve been to all the castles, the outlying islands, the good snorkel spots.” He shrugged. “Just depends on what you’re into, I guess.”
“Do you dive?”
“I tried.” Connor tapped just below his temple. “It bugs my ears.”
“Tell me about it. There’s some awesome places to snorkel here. I’ll bet diving would be even better.”
“Well, I’ve never even snorkeled.”
“Really.” I mirrored his earlier motions, leaning down and scooping some water—holy fuck, that stung my knuckles—onto my arms to cool myself off. “Any good spots?”
“I haven’t found a bad spot here. Though I did stop snorkeling off Kadena Marina after I realized it’s right next to a sewage treatment plant.”
I wrinkled my nose. “Seriously?”
He nodded. “I don’t know if they actually dump anything in the water, and it all looks pretty clean and clear, but…no way I’m putting my face in that water.”
“I don’t blame you.”
“Other than that, though, you can pretty much pull off the road anywhere, jump in the water, and see all kinds of cool shit. Just, you know, watch for jellyfish.”
“That’s what I’ve heard.” I sat back against the rock and, without thinking about it, propped my foot up on the other rock…just inches from his leg.
He glanced down, and that odd smile came back to life as he looked at me again. There was no casually pulling my leg back and pretending it had never happened, so I just kept it against the rock.
Clearing my throat, I broke eye contact. “You had any problems with jellyfish when you’ve snorkeled?”
“Not the box jellyfish. Never even seen one, knock on wood.”
I lifted my gaze. “Are there others?”
Connor nodded. “Buddy of mine got stung in the face by one of the red ones. Those fuckers won’t kill you, but, man, they will ruin your day.”
“Yep. Watch out for them. They’re red and about this big.” He held his hands up about a football’s width apart. “Nasty fuckers.”
“Good to know.”
Silence fell between us. My foot was still on the rock next to him. He was still fucking with my pulse just by existing. I had no idea if he was gay, straight or just a goddamned figment of my sex-deprived imagination, and what to say next was completely lost on me.
Fortunately, Connor spoke first. “Listen, um…” He paused, gnawing his lower lip. “There’s a place not far from here, maybe an hour once you get back to the main drag. Some of the most amazing pizza on the island. You, um, want to grab a bite?”
In spite of this unbelievable attraction, my first instinct was to back away and quickly decline, but this wasn’t some drunk Marine trying to coax me into a dark corner. Connor was as nonthreatening as a man could be. And so, so gorgeous.
I smiled. “Sure. Why not?”