Home > Off Base (Out of Uniform #1)(8)

Off Base (Out of Uniform #1)(8)
Author: Annabeth Albert

    He stopped in his room at the barracks barely long enough to grab a change of clothes and a towel before heading to the shower room. His single might be tinier than his parents’ walk-in closet back home, but at least he didn’t have to share. He shuddered at the thought of sharing with someone like Cobb.

    He scrubbed his skin hard as he finished up the shower. The water like always was barely tepid with sucky pressure, but he managed to get clean. He emerged from his stall only to find Cobb waiting for him, lounging against one of the tile walls. Fuck. Had he conjured him up just by thinking about him? Zack blinked but nope, the bastard was still there, sly smile on his face. Given the weird Saturday midmorning hour, they were the only two in there. Danger. Danger. Zack tried to step around the bigger man to get his clothes, but Cobb blocked his path.

    “Thought you were back.” Cobb’s voice was heavy on the deep South drawl. He was from somewhere in rural Georgia, a place that grew giant men along with peaches. Cobb was easily half a foot taller than Zack, something he never failed to exploit by looming over him, wide shoulders blocking out the sun.

    “So?” Zack pulled his towel a bit tighter around his waist, one hand firmly on the knot. This wasn’t his first trip to this particular rodeo.

    “My boots need shining. And I’ve got laundry to do.”

    “This is my problem why?” Zack tried to manage a sneer.

    “Because.” Cobb got a grip on Zack’s biceps, twisted hard. He’d have a bruise tomorrow for sure. And despite knowing a half dozen different ways to throw Cobb off, Zack’s insides froze, muscles and brain locked up with the same icy fear that always struck when Cobb got ahold of him.

    “I still haven’t told,” Cobb said conversationally before his tone slipped back to nasty. “But I could.”

    “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Zack tried to keep his voice from wavering but failed miserably. As always. What was it about Cobb that got him all twisted up?

    “You’re full of shit. You and I both know what I saw. And if I tell, you’ll get the shit kicked out of you and no one’s going to have your six.”

    Fuck. Still this. Way back in BUD/S training, Zack had had a weak moment. A lapse really. He’d been damn tired, exhausted and hungry, and not thinking straight. And he’d ogled his friend Harper’s ass in the shower, gotten a semi from it, which Cobb alone had noticed, and he’d tormented him about it ever since. And it didn’t help that Harper, despite being his friend, was a big homophobe who would most likely punch him out over this.

    His friend Ryan had managed to be openly gay as a SEAL officer, but out here among the enlisted men, Zack didn’t see a lot of rainbow flag wavers. And for every time he was tempted to tell Cobb where to shove it and fight him for real, someone else on the team would be all “faggot” this or “queer” that with their jokes and that impulse fled.

    “I’ve got to do a load today anyway.”

    “That’s what I thought,” Cobb sneered as he walked away. “I’ll drop my shit off in your room.”

    I’ve got to get out of living here. Zack might not be able to escape having Cobb on his team, but he couldn’t keep living like this. It was past time to investigate off-base housing.

    * * *

    “So I hear you’re looking for off-base housing?” the senior chief asked Zack as they stretched before what was slated to be a grueling run.

    “Yes, sir.” Zack didn’t ask how he knew. The senior chief made it his business to know when one of his men sneezed. “I put in my request.”

    “Going to be tough to find something on an E-4 salary in this area,” the older man said thoughtfully as he switched legs for a hamstring stretch. “You got a girl in a situation or something I should know about?”

    “No, sir,” Zack said quickly. “No girl.” And how.

    “Anything else I should know about?” The man’s dark eyes always seemed to see inside Zack’s deepest secrets. Had he heard about the trouble with Cobb? That wouldn’t do at all, because Zack had no doubt that Cobb could spin things so it looked like Zack was at fault. Since their shower run-in a few weeks ago, Cobb had lain low, but Zack had no illusions. Cobb was a snake in the grass—he could strike again at any moment.

    “You handy at all, Nelson?” The senior chief studied him intently, like he’d discover the truth regardless of Zack’s answer.

    “Yes, sir.” It didn’t matter that he wasn’t particularly. The senior chief needed something doing, Zack would be on Google and on it until the task was done.

    “That’s fine. Real fine.” The senior chief nodded, scratching his chin. The man was big, bulky like Cobb, but with gray hair at his temples and a kindness to his voice that Cobb could never manage. “I own some rental properties. Little side business for the wife and me.”

    Zack nodded, mentally crossing his fingers that this was about to lead to an answer that would get him off base.

    “We just got a new place. About five minutes from base, good neighborhood, but it needs some things done—painting, refinishing cabinets, ripping carpets out, that sort of thing. Usually Cherice does a lot of it, but we just found out she’s expecting. Twins. Lord, help us.” The senior chief looked skyward. “Anyway, I could use a hand.”

    “I could do that, sir.” With Google by my side. He crossed those fingers a little harder.

    “What would you say to helping me out in your off time, but you could stay there rent free?”

    “I’d say yes, sir. I’d be pleased to help you.”

    “It’s a three-bedroom place. If you know another guy looking for housing, feel free to ask him too—the work would go faster with more hands.”

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