Release date is May 1st.
Damn. Who’s singing in my shower?
Zack Lennox peeled a bleary eye open. Had to be Jake. Only he could get away with singing this early and make it sound good - well, halfway good. The problem was not the pitch or tune, but the depression. The man was good, but he could turn You Are My Sunshine into a dirge.
Today was no different. Zack recognized the words to one of the heartrending scores from Les Mis. He laid there, his arm over his face to block the early morning light. If only it blocked the song. One hurt his eyes, the other his heart. Yeah. The anguish of every man who’d ever been deployed echoed through those pleading lyrics. Bring Him Home.
Singing was how Jake vented his heartache. He’d come home messed up from his last tour in Iraq, not able to go back to what Americans who’d never been to war called a ‘normal life.’ Most people didn’t realize ‘normal’ was not an option once a man had been to Hell. Movies and television made ’em look like heroes, but Zack knew better. They were all messed up. Some just hid it better.
The man in the shower roared the last words of the tragic, hopeful song.
Zack growled. Give me a break.
“Hmmm.” A woman’s throaty moan sounded a little too close for comfort. He glanced to his left as a feminine ass plastered itself against his naked thigh. Time to move. He had to get to work, and Jake had to stop singing. Still... that feminine backside was warm and soft. He hesitated. It was early enough. He might have just enough time to—
No. Making love to a sound-asleep woman was not in the cards today. No way. No how. He eased away from... Who was she, anyway? Leaning over her shoulder he brushed the brassy curls aside. Oh. Carol. Good to know. Alcohol might dim a man’s senses the night before, but they’d better be sharp when ‘good morning, umm, whoever-you-are’ rolled around.
She didn’t wake up when he leveled his weight off the bed. He stood and looked for his briefs in the dim bedroom light. Not finding them, he opted for a naked stroll to his guest bathroom. After all, it was only Jake in there.
Traipsing down the hall, he stepped over the debris from a damned good time with, by the looks of his place, a lot of friends. Beer and wine bottles littered the living room floor. Cardboard pizza boxes with sauce and cheese wagon-wheel imprints lay discarded on the coffee table where the festivities had begun. He kicked a red and grey hoody he didn’t recognize as he shuffled his way to the coffee maker. What he needed now was hot, black, and strong enough to kick-start the week. A maple-glazed donut wouldn’t hurt, either.
The first verse of Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall pealed forth from the bathroom. Zack dumped in the two scoops of Kona’s best, filled the coffee maker with enough water, turned it to brew, and headed for the first and last verse of the too-loud drinking song. Jake had to be stopped. That’s all there was to it.
Billowing steam poured from the bathroom door as soon as he cracked it open. The song ceased. He snagged a towel and wrapped it around his waist.
“That you?” a tremulous voice asked.
“You’re bellowing loud enough to wake the dead.” Zack swiped a hand over the fogged-up mirror.
“Yeah, well.” Jake didn’t finish. He always sang when he was depressed, and he was always depressed. All his friends knew that.
“Thanks. You going in today?”
Zack grunted around the toothbrush in his mouth. “It’s Monday, isn’t it?”
“Thought maybe you could take a day. Maybe we could hang out.” The shower stopped.
“Not going to happen. One of us needs to work.”
“Yeah, well.” Jake’s favorite words when faced with reality.
Zack didn’t mind. They’d been friends long before the war messed in Jake’s head. He wasn’t going to turn his back on his buddy now. “Need a favor, though.”
“Like?” Jake stepped one foot out of the shower, rubbing a towel over his too-skinny body. He didn’t do drugs, Zack was sure of that, but living on the streets was hard on a man. The hot shower had to feel good. He didn’t get one often enough.
“Like I need you to make sure my friend, Carol, finds her clothes and makes it to her car some time today. She’s still buzzed. Can you do that for me?”
“Sure. Did all the pizza get eaten?”
“Don’t know, but there’s a box of breakfast biscuits in the freezer. You know how to work the microwave.”
Jake wrapped the towel at his waist. “You got a clean shirt around here?”
“Hanging in my closet. Help yourself.” Zack smoothed a layer of shaving gel over his head and around his chin. The mirror kept fogging up. He swiped it clean again before taking the blade to his three-day’s growth.
“Remember the time you woke up with two chicks in your bed?” Jake made himself comfortable on the closed toilet seat, his knobby knees bouncing with his usual hyperactivity. “That was funny.”
“Not my brightest idea.” Zack focused on not nicking himself. Stupid things like two hot babes in the same bed caused three times the trouble the next day when he had to tell them he wasn’t that kind of interested. He’d made it rule number one to never be that kind of dumb again.
“What’s on your docket today?” Zack waited for his buddy to answer. It was a stupid question. A homeless man didn’t have a docket.
Jake stilled. “Nuthin’.”
“If you’ve got time, I could use a little help. Remember Lillian?”
“Oh. Her.” Yeah. Of course, Jake would remember. She lived two doors down in Zack’s singles-only gated community, and she was hot for Jake. Neither of them knew why. Lillian was high-end merchandise; Jake wasn’t even in the mall. It had to be the whole opposites attract thing.
“Relax. She’s been in Hawaii. She spends every September there. I’m supposed to pick up Tiki from the vet. They’ve been boarding her until—”
“Lillian’s coming home today, isn’t she? You want me to take her dog to her.” Jake sounded accusatory. He had a soft spot for the prissy poodle, not the owner.
“Relax. Just get Tiki from the vet and kennel her in Lillian’s backyard. It will give you a chance to play with the mutt. You don’t have to hang around unless you want to.”
“She’s not a mutt. When’s Lillian getting in?”
“Six p.m.” Zack wiped a hot washcloth over his head. Women liked his shaved skull look. Who was he to argue? “Don’t worry. You can be out of there before she gets home.”
He eyed his friend. A bossy woman like Lillian might actually do Jake some good, but Zack was no matchmaker, another line he did not cross. If a man was going to make a mistake with a woman, well, rule number two came into play. Never stick your nose where it doesn’t belong. Folks get to screw up their own lives.
“Sure. I’ll get Tiki. She’s smart.”
“I’ve got to get moving.” Zack glanced at his friend. “You’re welcome to stay, but I might be gone awhile. Keep the place halfway clean, will ya? Lock up when you leave.”
Zack slung his towel over the shower door before stepping inside. “Don’t know. It’s a combined effort with a lot of feds – DEA, FBI, ATF, and a few others.”
“’Kay,” Jake muttered on his way out of the bathroom.
Zack lingered in the shower as long as he dared, which wasn’t long. After a quick toweling, he paused to look in the mirror, trying to see what it was women saw. Besides the mocha-colored skin he’d been blessed with from his Jamaican father and his beautiful, green-eyed Irish mother, he didn’t see much special.
His nose was crooked from flying over the handlebars of his bike while still in training wheels. It should have taught him to slow down. It didn’t. A small curved scar on his chin testified that flying a Humvee over an Iraqi sand dune was not the smartest idea, especially when the top-heavy rig rolled. Speed always enticed him. Life was meant to be lived fast and hard. So far, so good.
He flexed one arm, proud of the rippling effect the one taut bicep had over the rest of his upper body. He didn’t do steroids, but when he flexed into one of those weightlifter-type power stances, it looked like maybe he used. Truth was, he didn’t have to. Genetics supplied the basics; he’d supplemented with a steady bodybuilding program and, voila. There stood the man he was today.
Time to roll. By the time he exited the bathroom with the towel once again snug on his hips, Jake had left a cup of coffee on the counter, already doctored with enough creamer and sugar. The debris from the living room was picked up. Two full garbage bags stood at the front door on their way to the dumpster. The quiet verse of another opera reverberated tragically from the back bedroom. Poor Jake. Still singing his heart away.