Excerpt from Cat Grant's Once a Marine
The second he walked into the diner, I nearly dropped the stack of plates I was carrying. Six foot three at least, with long, long legs encased in jeans worn almost white across the front of his well-muscled thighs. Dripping wet from the freezing November downpour, he unzipped his rain jacket and pushed back the hood. Oh, holy Christ. Lush lips, strong chin, cheekbones that could slice through a rare steak. Nordic-god blond hair in a military buzz cut that instantly made the crotch of my jeans tight. Good thing I had my apron on. I pushed my glasses up the bridge of my nose and kept staring.
I wasn’t the only one. Terry’s hand froze momentarily over the cash register as our new arrival gave her a quick nod, grabbed the sports section from the front counter, and headed for the nearest empty table. He didn’t seem to notice us both gaping at him, or maybe he just didn’t care. Drop-dead gorgeous guys like him were probably used to it.
“That’s what I call a tall, cool drink of water.” Terry handed her customer his change and shut the register with a bump of her ample hip. “And lucky you—he just sat down in your section. Unless you want to take your break now?” She flashed me a toothy grin.
“Nice try,” I fired back with a wink. I put my armload of dirty dishes in a tub under the counter and grabbed a mug and a pot of coffee before making a beeline back to Mr. Tall-and-Hunky’s table. The shitty weather had scared away most of the usual Sunday morning crowd, so for once I didn’t get waylaid refilling cups.
Tall-and-Hunky glanced up as I approached. He looked about thirty, with nice eyes—pale blue, but not the least bit icy. Smiling, I gestured toward him with the mug. “Hi, I’m Marc. Would you like some coffee?” He nodded. “Did you want some juice this morning as well, or maybe some water?”
“Coffee’s fine, thanks.” For a second I could’ve sworn I detected the soft lilt of a southern accent. And now I definitely recognized the haircut—shaved nearly bare on the back and sides, flat on top. The traditional “high and tight” cut worn by most Marines. Sweet, seedy memories of falling to my knees in the back room of an adult bookstore in Oceanside raced through my brain as I watched him stir raw sugar into his coffee and take his first tentative sip.
Then those big blue eyes locked on mine, jolting me back to the present. “Um, do you need a couple more minutes to make up your mind?”
He snagged a menu and gave it a quick once-over, the side with “Blue Windmill Café” printed on it flipped toward me. “I’ll have two eggs over easy with hash browns and a side of bacon.”
There it was, and no doubt this time—that unmistakable slow-as-honey Carolina drawl. Just like Rob, I realized with a pang, tugging my pad and pen from my apron to scribble down his order. “What kind of toast?”
“You got biscuits?” he asked shyly, one corner of his mouth quirking up.
“Afraid not. How about an English muffin?”
“That’ll do. Thanks.” He took another sip of his coffee and turned his attention back to the sports section.
“Looked like you were having a nice conversation,” Terry commented archly as I came back around the counter and stuck my order in the queue for Fernando. The smell of burnt toast and bacon grease floated forth from the kitchen, punctuated by the clatter of Fernando’s teenage son Pedro none-too-gently loading dirty dishes into the washer. “Did you notice him checking out your butt?”
“Yeah, right.” Six months ago, she might’ve had me going. Terry loved yanking my chain. Good-natured yanking, but still.
“For once I’m not kidding. He looked right at those cute little buns of yours when you turned around.”
I tossed a nonchalant glance in Military Guy’s direction. He had his phone out now, and was punching at its tiny keyboard with mad double-thumb action. It looked like a toy nestled in his huge, long-fingered hands. Oh, dear God. If there was one thing I went crazy for, it was a guy with nice hands.
“Just my luck.” Terry shook her head, brunette ponytail swinging to and fro. “All the hot ones play for your team.”
“I think the jury’s still out on that.”
“Why don’t we put it to the test?” She snapped up a coffee pot from a burner. “Let’s see if he needs a warm-up.”
Of course, crotchety old Mr. Faber had to choose that moment to hobble up to the register to pay his bill. I rang him up while trying to peer over his shoulder to see what Terry was doing.
She could flirt with the best of them, I’d give her that. Hand resting seductively on her cocked hip, she gave Military Guy a big smile and batted her lashes. He smiled back, his gaze lingering on her impressive bust line. Didn’t mean anything one way or the other—hell, I stared at Terry’s tits too, mostly because they seemed to defy gravity. They exchanged words, but I couldn’t hear what either of them said. Finally, she topped off his mug and sashayed back to the counter.
“His mama raised him right,” she announced with a rapturous sigh. “Such lovely manners. He actually called me ma’am!”
I snickered. “Probably because you remind him of his mom.”
“Watch it, buster. I’m only thirty-five.”
According to Fernando, Terry’d just celebrated the sixth anniversary of her thirty-fifth birthday. But since I didn’t want to get kicked in the shin, I figured I’d better not mention it. Besides, my order was up.
I stacked both plates along my left arm like a seasoned greasy-spoon pro, grabbed a bottle of ketchup, and motored back to Military Guy’s table. He folded his paper and sat back, giving me room to set everything down. The plate with the bacon and eggs nearly slipped from my hand when he shrugged out of his slicker. He was wearing a plain black t-shirt underneath. A really tight plain black t-shirt stretched over every hard, smooth muscle in his chest and shoulders, showing off a spectacular set of guns. It was all I could do to keep from drooling.
“A-anything else I can get you?” Coffee? Tea? Me?
“This’ll do for now, thanks.” His right sleeve hiked up when he reached for his fork, revealing a small tattoo of a bulldog with “USMC” emblazoned under it. Growing up in San Diego, I’d seen my fair share of Marine Corps tats. Most of them looked garish and trashy, but this one was actually kind of cute. So was this guy a real Marine, or just a wannabe?
One way to find out. “We don’t get too many devil dogs in this neighborhood. You here to protect Berkeley from the scourge of all us bleeding-heart liberals?”
His smile immediately faded. “I think I’m a little late for that. Besides, I’m not on active duty.”
Ouch. Now I wished I’d kept my mouth shut. “Well, let me know if you need anything else, okay?”
Before long, the rain slowed to a trickle and business started to pick up. Within half an hour, the place was packed, and Terry and I were running our butts off. Pedro even had to come out front to help bus tables and ring up customers. I got so busy I didn’t notice when Military Guy got up to leave. The next time I looked over at his table, he was gone.
Royally bummed, I went to clear off his dirty dishes—and there was his phone, under the discarded sports section he’d been reading. It was one of those pocket-sized prepaid models. People left them here all the time. They were so cheap he’d probably rather buy another one than retrace his steps to find it. Oh well. I’d toss it in the lost and found anyway.
He’d left a generous tip: five bucks on a breakfast that cost less than ten. A kind gesture, especially since I’d forgotten to come back and check on him. Not only damn cute, but a gentleman to boot—and with my luck, probably straight as a steel ruler. Best to put him out of my mind right now. I shoved the phone in my pocket, added his dirty plates to my ever-growing stack, and toted it all back to the front counter.
The sun started poking through the remaining cloud cover by the time I got off shift at three. I headed down the block toward the bus stop, zipping up my jacket against the lingering chill. Typical Bay Area weather—cold, wet, and gloomy from now until March. The air tasted good, though, scrubbed fresh and clean by the rain.
Bus service ran slow on Sundays, so I ducked inside the shelter to wait, burying my hands in my jeans pockets. My fingers closed over something small and plastic. Shit, the Marine’s phone! A twinge of guilt plucked at me as I yanked it from my pocket and flicked it on. What was the harm in finding out his name? It wasn’t like I was planning to stalk him. One quick look, then I’d put the damn thing in the lost and found tomorrow.
Cole Hammond. A good, strong name with a touch of country twang. It suited him. His address was right below. It was only about three blocks north. Huh. Wonder why I’d never seen him in the diner before today?
Ten minutes crawled by, and still no sign of the bus. Fuck it—I might as well walk. Except my apartment lay south while my legs insisted on carrying me in the opposite direction, toward Cole Hammond’s place.
It was your usual depressing gray concrete apartment building on Channing, within easy walking distance of the UC Berkeley campus. I’d lived in one of the residence halls not far from here during my undergrad days. So was this Cole guy a student? He looked a little old to be getting his bachelor’s, but grad school was a possibility. Maybe he was studying for an advanced science or engineering degree on the government’s dime. He certainly seemed better-spoken than the average grunt. Of course, if Uncle Sam was forking out the money to send him here, he was probably an officer.
I found his name on the complex’s directory, then started to waver big-time. This was nuts. What the fuck was I thinking? I should just drop the phone in his mailbox and get out of here before one of the other residents saw me loitering and called the cops. Except it wouldn’t fit in the mailbox—the slats weren’t wide enough. And if I left it on the table in the foyer, it’d end up getting stolen.
I could bring it up to his apartment. Leave it outside his door, knock, then take off before anybody saw me. Like leaving a bag of burning dog shit on someone’s stoop at Halloween, only slightly more considerate. Might as well do it and get it over with. I’d already come this far.
His apartment was on the third floor. I decided to take the stairs instead of the elevator. The place was a labyrinth of hallways, but finally I found the right one. As I rounded the corner, I saw someone else approaching from the other end of the corridor.
To read more and to purchase Once a Marine, click here.
Read more about Cat Grant and her writing on her website.
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