Designated Target

an excerpt

"Don't worry about the stuffing, Mike. I've got it covered. I don't have any place else to be tonight. You just keep the food coming. I'll dish it up."

Steam rose from the eight-foot serving stand, the warm, moist vapor a welcome change from the frigid fall air outside. Carson slipped the large metal basin of stuffing into the open rack and quickly covered it. The heavy rectangular lid clanked against the steel base adding one more cheery, riotous sound to the noisy room.

Thursday nights he donated time to the food bank. Tonight was one of the coldest of the year and a holiday to boot. The basement was packed, mostly with people just looking for a warm place to spend a few hours out of the cold. The free meal didn't hurt either.

Hands covered in a pair of thin silicone gloves like all the other volunteers working the food line, Carson used the absorbent sleeve of his Henley to wipe away the newly formed sheen of steam-generated droplets from his toasty cheeks. He closed his eyes, buried his nose in the crook of his elbow and drew his arm down his face. Unexpectedly, the two-day-old bruise on his left cheek soared to life. He winced and pulled his arm away fast. A small, annoyed breath escaped him. Christ, I need a shower.

He wished he could wash away the memories as easily as the sweat he was working up. The painful area around his eye throbbed, making his eyes water.

Steve, you wanker, you certainly left your mark on me, man. Literally. Goddamn control freak. Two dates and you were trying to run my life more than Jim did when I was fifteen. Big brother Jim would beat the crap out of you if he was around, you'd better believe it, asshole. He'd use every Army Ranger skill he had to make you suffer in ways you couldn't even imagine and he'd get away with it too...

If he hadn't died two months ago in some mysterious, classified mission. Fucking ‘need to know' rules wouldn't even let me know where or how or why. Jim loved the Army but sometime the U.S. government sucks big time!

Wincing, Carson sighed and scratched his nose with his wrist, waiting for the tears to evaporate so he could face the people around him. He had friends here but he wasn't going to explain the bruise or the watering eyes. Or talk about the pain in his chest whenever he thought about his brother's untimely death.

The people here weren't that close to him. No one was, not since grade school. He'd been out of high school for six years, losing contact with everyone from home when he moved across the state to join the research and development division of Advantage's software house. Communications was his thing. But with computers not people.

Which is why you're alone in a room full of complete strangers for the holiday instead of spending it with someone.

Regret mellowed to resignation that mixed with a touch of lingering anger with himself. Whiner. Suck it up, Crosby! Spending the holiday here alone is better than spending it in the emergency department again. Sure, you've got great health insurance, but let's not put it to the test. And yeah, it would be better if Jim was here, but he's not and he's never going to be again. Get used to it.

Raising his head, Carson opened his eyes to look out over the crowd. The church basement was laid out with long tables placed end to end the length of the large, drafty room. Lines of folding chairs that had seen better days were arranged down both sides of the tables and more were stacked in the corners of the room. Holiday decorations dotted the tables and the walls, all of them looking like they came from the Sunday school and day care patrons' busy little fingers and eclectic imaginations. They were colorful and bright if not always recognizable, but still pleasing to Carson's watering eyes.

Pleasing. Just like the man standing less than six feet away, towering over the service table, talking to Mad Lacey, the old eccentric who haunted the four city blocks surrounding the church they were in. Mike, the food bank's overworked coordinator, said she had a home of her own and never seemed to need anything. She was such a constant figure at the food line, Carson tended to forget she wasn't one of the many homeless that came to the basement. He watched a rare smile light up Mad Lacey's face, the old woman seemingly as captivated by the towering man as Carson.

Carson hadn't even heard the stranger walk up to the serving area. Which took a fair amount of stealth and skill, considering the guy had on heavy boots and was no lightweight. Carson had excellent hearing, even in a noisy room.

He had to wear earplugs when he was writing software-to block out the rest of the world. Something he maybe did a little too often outside work. Right now he could hear the deep timbre of the man's smooth voice-low, strong, and confident.

Broad and brooding, tall and dark. The guy's six foot plus frame had several inches on Carson's five foot nine, and the man outweighed him by at least seventy pounds. All of it in hard muscle. The man's tan T-shirt stretched across his linebacker shoulders and thick upper arms, straining around a thick neck, smooth as a second skin over hills and valleys of sloping, taut skin.

"Lord, have mercy." It popped out before he could stop it, but what the hell. He was in church. This guy was definitely attractive.

Being a detail junkie had its drawbacks, but now the talent served Carson well. He couldn't stop himself from taking in every possible bit of information he could pull in visually about the man. The guy was all testosterone and steroids, alpha male, macho to the max and hard as stone. And probably so straight he had trouble bending to sit down. Some days it wasn't easy being gay when all you were attracted to was big, bad, macho men, most with an eye for ladies only. The last thing Carson needed was another shiner to match the one Steve-the-Asshole had gifted him with last night.

The tan fabric clung to the man's sides and sculpted abdomen, showing muscle that told of hours of physically intense, daily workouts. The deep tan and calloused hands said the guy did his workouts somewhere besides a gym. The short, spiky dark hair, ironed fatigues and polished, high-top black boots shouted military loud and clear. Carson could see a worn spot on his belt where Carson's imagination supplied weapons to hang off the webbing.

Carson closed his eyes. Everything about the man screamed control and order. Walk away, now. But he couldn't. He needed one more look before he crossed the guy off his list of things to wish for this holiday season.

The thighs under the pant legs looked like sides of beef, powerful and long. The man's boot size had to be over thirteen. Carson's gaze jumped to the calloused hands again. They were proportional to the rest of him.

An old wife's tale sprang to mind. Before he could stop himself, Carson's eyes dropped to the man's crotch, instantly wondering what lay tucked away behind the rough, bulky folds of thick fabric and fasteners. His imagination supplied a vivid reason for the respectable fabric bulge, making his own close-fitting jeans suddenly less comfortable.

He blinked when he felt heat rise in his cheeks, embarrassed by his body's immediate reaction. You're supposed to be here helping out, not mentally feeling up the patrons. But he really didn't think this guy needed a soup kitchen to grab a hearty meal. Not with that body.