Afraid to Fly (Anchor Point, #2)
This title is #2 of the Anchor Point series.
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Once a fearless fighter pilot, Commander Travis Wilson is now confined to a desk. It’s been eight years since the near-fatal crash that grounded him, and it still rules his life thanks to relentless back pain.
Lieutenant Commander Clint Fraser almost drowned in a bottle after a highly classified catastrophe while piloting a drone. His downward spiral cost him his marriage and kids, but he’s sober now and getting his life back on track. He’s traded drones for a desk, and he’s determined to reconcile with his kids and navigate the choppy waters of PTSD.
Clint has been on Travis’s radar ever since he transferred to Anchor Point. When Clint comes out to his colleagues, it’s a disaster, but there’s a silver lining: now that Travis knows Clint is into men, the chemistry between them explodes.
It’s all fun and games until emotions get involved. Clint’s never been in love with a man before. Travis has, and a decade later, that tragic ending still haunts him. Clint needs to coax him past his fear of crashing and burning again, or their love will be grounded before takeoff.
Finalist: Best Bisexual Contemporary Romance in the 2017 Rainbow Awards!
Finalist: Best Bisexual Book in the 2017 Rainbow Awards!
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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“You know the only reason I come to these things is because you want to go, right?”
Kimber batted her eyes at me and smirked. “Aww, the sacrifices you make for your baby girl.”
“As if I haven’t made enough already.” I parked outside the hotel where the command had rented the ballroom for the evening. I was actually amazed this tiny town had a big enough hotel to host something like this, but wonders never ceased.
The lot was mostly full already, so obviously this year’s Navy Ball was a popular one. Great. The more, the merrier, said everyone right up until the cops had to be called.
I stepped out of the car, fussed with my black bow tie, and buttoned my jacket. It was a bit snug; either I needed to spend some more time at the gym, or I’d damn well better get this uniform let out before Kimber strong-armed me into next year’s ball. For tonight, I just prayed like hell the single button holding it together above the gold cummerbund didn’t snap off.
On the other hand, standing up straight and pulling in my midsection did take some of the strain off my back. Not enough to go without my TENS unit—I’d been clinging to that fucker since breakfast—but it helped.
At least I wasn’t wearing a back brace this year. That combined with my dinner dress uniform had been downright suffocating. God help me if I had to restick one of the TENS pads or untangle a wire, or if the fucking battery died again, but I’d deal with that if it happened.
I could do this. It was only a few hours.
I stood up straighter, sucked it in, and adjusted my jacket.
A few long hours. Joy.
On the sidewalk, Kimber fussed with the strap on her bright-red dress and swore under her breath.
“Stupid . . . fucking . . .” She rolled her shoulders. “Okay. I think I’m ready.”
“Shut up.” She laughed. “You have my ID, right?”
I tapped the pocket where I kept my wallet. “Yep.”
“Okay. Good. Let’s get inside. It’s freezing out here.”
“Well yeah. It’s October.” I didn’t mention it would be warmer if she wore the jacket draped over her arm, mostly because she’d get me back later when I bitched about being too hot in my jacket. Never mind that I was required to wear mine whether I liked it or not.
As we headed inside, I tugged at my lapels and my sleeves, and suppressed a groan. The ball was an annual form of torture that was ostensibly to celebrate the Navy’s birthday. I was pretty sure it only existed so we’d all have a reason to wear our dinner dress uniforms. Or, more to the point, a reason to clean them, iron them, and spend half an evening cursing at all the medals and insignia that refused to go on properly, all before scrambling to the on-base tailor because maybe we’d put on some weight since last year.
But Kimber loved these shindigs, so she came with me as my “date.” And even if I thought this fell somewhere between waterboarding and watching Sex and the City, I tamped down my distaste as we walked inside.
The ballroom was packed with round tables and decorated to the gills, looking as glorious as any Holiday Inn banquet. The organizers were well aware that there were a lot of people here with varying degrees of PTSD, so they didn’t go crazy with strobes or spotlights or anything like that. No disco ball over the dance floor. No funky lights from the deejay’s booth. The sunken lights overhead were dim, creating a nice atmosphere, and everything was soft and subtle enough to avoid ruining someone’s evening.
With any luck, the food would be decent, but if the last five Navy Balls I’d attended were any indication . . . well . . . I wasn’t holding my breath. Just as well. As snug as my uniform was this year, I would need to hold my breath if I actually ate very much.
“So.” Kimber looked around after we’d checked her coat. “Where should we sit?”
I scanned the room for familiar faces, and found Norris, one of the guys from my office. He and his wife had commandeered a table on the opposite side of the room from the buffet. Wise—the buffet was going to get crowded as hell once the lids came off the chafing dishes. At least it would be reasonably quiet over here.
We joined them and claimed a couple of chairs on the side facing the front of the room. There was a lot of pomp and circumstance at these things, and the people with their backs to the front would have to spend a good hour twisted around to face the right direction. The pain in my back intensified just thinking about it. The tingle from the TENS still helped, but I had to wonder how long that would last. Good thing the control box was the perfect size to fit in the pocket of my trousers where it was inconspicuous and within easy reach if I needed to crank it up. Which, judging by the tightness in the middle of my back, I would.
“I’m going to go get a drink.” Kimber nodded toward one of several bars. “You want anything?”
“Yes, please.” I took out my wallet and pulled out her ID, which I carried tonight since she didn’t have any pockets and hated purses, along with some cash to tip the bartender. “Whatever you’re having.”
“Unless it’s fruity and comes with an umbrella, right?”
I wrinkled my nose. “Obviously.”
“Got it. Back in a minute.”
Peering the growing lines at each bar, I said, “Good luck with that.”
“Eh. I’ll be fine.” She grinned. “Plenty of eye candy.”
“Uh-huh. Go.” I playfully shooed her away, and she headed toward the bar. While she was gone, I looked around for more people I knew. Almost everyone from my office was planning to come—open bar was the quickest way to persuade officers and Sailors alike to show up, after all.
Sure enough, Captain Rodriguez, our commanding officer, was walking in with her husband. They’d barely taken off their coats before the executive officer, Commander Johnson, was right in their faces, brown-nosing like he always did. I rolled my eyes. Yeah, making captain was a political game—didn’t I know it—but Captain Rodriguez didn’t like kiss-asses. Well, fine. Let him earn himself some “not a chance, asshole” points. One less commander for me to compete with for that coveted promotion.
I left him to his idiocy and looked around again, and—
My stomach flipped.
Lieutenant Commander Fraser.
The crowded room was suddenly empty. Everyone else faded into the shadows as my brain superimposed a spotlight over him like some sort of cheesy 1980s prom movie special effect.
I’d been ogling that man since he’d transferred to NAS Adams recently. Tonight he took “oh my God” to a whole new level when he strolled into the Navy Ball in his dinner dress uniform. The short jacket and tailored trousers made even the least attractive man look good, but Fraser . . . Jesus. Something told me he hadn’t struggled with getting into his uniform. It all fit like he’d been poured into it. The trousers hugged his slim waist, and the jacket clung comfortably to his shoulders. The button holding everything together in the front didn’t look like it was straining at all, and he didn’t appear to be sucking in his gut under the cummerbund like the rest of us.
He’d been hot before. Tonight he was going to be the reason I wound up drooling on my not-quite-as-nicely-fitted uniform.
Of course that was before I realized he’d come in with a date’s hand on his elbow.
And that date was a man.
I shook myself, blinked, and stared.
Lieutenant Commander . . . Fraser . . . is . . . gay?
Why the fuck had I not gotten that memo?
I looked around for Kimber, praying like hell she’d made it to the front of the line and acquired something cold and alcoholic for her hopelessly crushing dad. Even if it was fruity and had an umbrella, I needed it. Now.
She was almost to the front. Two guys were ahead of her, one of whom was gathering a handful of drinks. So it wouldn’t be long.
I turned back toward Fraser.
From the first moment I’d seen him at work, I’d been tripping over my own feet. Didn’t matter if he was in his blue camouflage utilities, or shorts and a T-shirt at the gym, or in civvies when we crossed paths on the base, or . . . or this. He had the kind of sharp, somewhat weathered features that were catnip to me. Smooth and flawless was fine and good, but especially as I got older myself, there was something about the lines by the corners of his eyes and the traces of silver in his sandy-blond hair that tongue-tied me all to hell. And of course he worked right down the hall from me, so it was a wonder I got anything done anymore.
He turned his head, and from across the room, our eyes locked.
I quickly turned away. Probably too quickly—the sudden twinge in my back made my teeth snap together—but better than still staring after I’d already been busted.
C’mon, Kimber. C’mon. Hurry.
Minutes later—while I was sneaking my three hundredth glance at Fraser—my daughter shouldered her way through the thickening crowd and held up a pair of brown bottles. “Two beers.”
“Awesome. Thank you.” I took mine, and we clinked our bottles together. Then I took a much-needed deep swallow, which of course did nothing to lessen the effect of gay dinner-dress-uniform Lieutenant Commander Fraser does not compute, does not compute . . . Did he just make eye contact again?
I really need to let out this uniform before next year. Can’t breathe.
“Dad?” Kimber tilted her head. “Why are you blushing?”
“Blushing?” I sputtered. “I am not.”
She eyed me as she sipped her own beer. “Let me guess—you’re hot because of your uniform.”
I glanced down at my jacket. Goddamn. I’d had an alibi right there and didn’t even think to use it. “Um . . .”
“Now you’re really blushing, Dad.”
“Shut up,” I muttered, and took a drink.
“I’m just saying.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” I elbowed her playfully. “You’re just saying—”
Fraser’s voice sent my heart into my throat. Good thing I hadn’t had a mouthful of beer right then, or it would’ve wound up all over Kimber. Or Fraser.
Schooling my expression, I turned around. “Hey, good to see you.”
“You too, sir.”
I shook his hand, smiling despite my pounding heart. “We’re technically not at work. Call me Travis.”
He gulped, like he wasn’t sure what to do with the informality. “Oh. Okay.” He glanced down, probably realizing our handshake had lasted a few beats too long, and withdrew his hand. “I guess call me Clint, then.”
So Lieutenant Commander Fraser was really Clint, a guy who had a boyfriend and looked incredibly hot in his dress uniform. Yeah, that was going to make things easier around the office.
His eyes darted toward Kimber, and to his own date, as if he wasn’t sure who should introduce who first.
I cleared my throat. “Well, um . . . This is my daughter, Kimber.”
“Your—” His eyebrows jumped a bit, but he quickly extended his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
She smiled as they shook hands. “Hi.”
“Hi.” He let her go and gestured at the guy beside him. “This is Logan. My . . .” he hesitated, “date.”
Logan glanced at him, as if he wasn’t sure how to respond to the hesitation over the nature of their relationship, then drained his beer bottle.
Clint shifted his weight, avoiding eye contact for a moment. Beside him, Logan rolled his eyes. I couldn’t help wondering if Clint’s hesitation a moment ago had been because he was second-guessing how out he wanted to be—that ship has sailed, my friend—or if there was some underlying issue between him and his “date.”
Finally, Logan turned to Clint. “I’m going to get another. You sure you don’t want one?”
Clint’s lips tightened, and he shook his head as he muttered something that sounded like, “You know I don’t.”
Logan gave a quiet, semidrunken laugh, nudging Clint with his shoulder. “Back in a minute.” He didn’t wait for a response, and headed for the bar. And despite how early in the evening it was, he was already noticeably unsteady on his feet.
Clint watched him go, and slowly pushed out a breath. “Sorry about . . .” He glanced at Logan’s back. Lowered his gaze. Shook his head. “Anyway. Um.” He coughed and looked around. “Looks like this command puts on a decent ball.”
I nodded, scanning the room again while I willed my pulse to come back down. After a moment, I turned to him. “Don’t get your hopes up about the food, though.”
“Get my hopes up?” Clint laughed, crinkling the corners of his eyes and sending my heart rate right back up into the stratosphere again. “This isn’t my first command. Trust me—my expectations are as realistic as yours.”
Chuckling, I brought my beer up to my lips. “Good. Then you won’t be disappointed.”
He started to say something, but hesitated and shifted his gaze away. If I wasn’t mistaken, some color rose in his cheeks.
Beside me, Kimber smothered a laugh.
I glared at her, and she quickly gestured with her beer bottle. “I’m going to go mingle.”
“Okay.” I fished my wallet out of my trouser pocket. “Here. In case you need a refill.” I shoved a five in her hand for tips and shooed her away, and she shot me a mischievous grin and—when Clint still wasn’t looking, thank God—a wink. Then she was gone.
And I was suddenly alone with the guy who worked five offices down from mine—not that I’d counted—and had a boyfriend or “date” or something who’d gone off to get a drink he probably didn’t need. The silence lingered uncomfortably for a moment, but Clint finally met my gaze and spoke.
“So, how do you think we did on the inspection?”
Normally, I hated shoptalk at functions like this, but sometimes it was a godsend. What better fallback for some socially awkward guys—gay and drooling or not—who couldn’t figure out what else to talk about?
So we discussed the inspection, and I focused half my attention on that and half on playing it cool. Not letting him see how much he’d flipped my world on its ass simply by showing up with a man. Except what difference did it make? It didn’t matter if he was gay when he was obviously spoken for. Unless there really was some trouble brewing between him and his date.
I tamped that thought down. I was not an opportunist who’d swoop in the second someone’s relationship ended. It was an absolute certainty that I’d be thinking about him later with a hand on my dick, but it wouldn’t go any further than that. Damn what few scruples I had.
As we talked, I sipped my beer, and for once, didn’t feel the need to go outside for a cigarette. I only smoked when I drank, and that itch for nicotine was definitely there beneath my skin, but I didn’t give in because I didn’t want to go outside. I had a moment to talk one-on-one with Clint-not-Lieutenant-Commander-Fraser. The cigarette could wait.
Someone tapped the microphone at the front of the room and announced the cocktail hour was over. Everyone took their seats.
And wasn’t it just my luck . . .
Clint and his date sat down at my table.
Every Navy Ball went through a series of traditions. The chaplain’s invocation. The oldest and youngest Sailors in attendance cutting the cake together. The acknowledgment of the unoccupied table setting to remember the POWs and MIA who weren’t with us. After eighteen years, I’d pretty much memorized the routine.
Tonight, it all seemed miles away. Something happening in some other reality while I sat here, surrounded by people and somehow feeling completely isolated as I shifted my gaze from one coworker to the next, wondering if things would be different on Monday.
There wasn’t much I could do about it now, but I still wasn’t sure if this had been the best way to come out to my new chain of command and coworkers. It had worked for a buddy of mine at my last base. He’d come to the Christmas party with his now-ex-thank-God-boyfriend, and aside from a few double takes, no one had really missed a beat. After that, nothing had changed as far as I’d been able to tell. Aside from quietly making bets on when he’d cut the loud-mouthed, sexist, racist son of a bitch loose—three weeks, it turned out—everyone had treated him the same way.
Hopefully the same would be true for me after tonight. I hadn’t come up with any other realistic or more subtle options for letting my coworkers know I had a boyfriend. Work it into a conversation? Put a picture on my desk that made it clear we were a couple? Make some big awkward announcement? I should’ve just mentioned him in passing and let people do the math.
But no, somehow, showing up with a man and letting it simply be known had been the best idea. No one really seemed to notice or care, so that was good. If anything, they were giving Logan the side-eye, but I thought it had less to do with him being male and was more about the bottles he’d been damn near deep-throating in rapid succession.
Slow down, idiot. You’re shitfaced before anyone else is even buzzed.
One thing was for sure—if my coworkers were taking bets on when I’d kick Logan’s drunk ass to the curb, I wanted to know so I could get in on it. I was this close to done with the guy, and dinner hadn’t even been served yet.
Which . . . hurt. I was angry with him tonight. We’d talked about this. Just one time, could he take it easy? But no. He’d been drinking since before I’d even picked him up, and we both knew he’d keep drinking until the beer ran dry.
I sighed, heart sinking. I liked the guy. I really did.
The longer I sat here, though, the more it felt like the last straw. I didn’t—and couldn’t—drink, and being around him when he was drunk was a problem. We’d fucking talked about this, damn it. He’d promised he’d do better, especially tonight.
And now here we were.
This must’ve been how my ex-wife had felt on more occasions than I cared to admit. There were only so many times a person could hear This is the last time—promise! from someone with booze on his breath before enough was enough.
Naturally, the straw would break the camel’s back tonight. At the Navy Ball. As I was introducing him to my coworkers as my boyfriend. First time since my divorce that I was in a relationship. First time in my life I was in a relationship with a man. It had felt good to think about going someplace public together. About saying, I’m with this person. It was like I was taking a huge step and moving on with my life. Now, instead of being out of the closet, all I could think was I wanted out. Of this room, of this ball, of this goddamned relationship.
I took a long drink, wishing it was alcoholic, and that stopped me in my tracks.
Oh dear God. Yes. If being with Logan made me want to drink, then he needed to go. Like . . . soon.
Sorry, Logan. You fucking blew it.
I felt bad about it, too. He was a nice guy and all—not a borderline skinhead like the asshole my friend had brought last year. The sex hadn’t been half bad either. But Jesus fucking Christ, the man could drink.
After tonight, though, now that he’d been slurring his words and wobbling on his feet right there in front of my new coworkers when he’d sworn he wouldn’t, it was going to have to be addressed one way or another. By the time the cocktail hour ended, he’d been on his third beer, not counting the pre-gaming before I’d picked him up.
A couple of guys at the next table watched him. Then they glanced at me, brows pinched with what looked like sympathy, before turning their attention back to the CO. She’d been speaking for a while now, and for the life of me, I couldn’t recall a word she’d said.
Wasn’t this night off to a fantastic start?
Now I was out as seeing a man I was five seconds away from dumping. On the bright side, I wouldn’t have to sweat over pronouns when I started dating someone with a lower blood alcohol content. Though my coworkers would probably all be confused as hell if I mentioned going out with a woman—I swore nobody at my last several commands had ever heard of bisexuality.
Eh. It was what it was. If they thought my closet had a revolving door, so be it. I just hoped nobody was a dick about me bringing a guy. So far so good, but there were a lot of people here. How they’d treat me in private—say, at the office on Monday—remained to be seen. Every command was different. Some of the guys at NAS Adams were on the conservative side. Some seemed pretty open-minded. The last CO was apparently marrying his boyfriend soon, and I hadn’t heard anyone screeching about that, so I was hopeful. But still worried. Because God knew one queer coworker plus one homophobe could equal a seriously hostile environment. I knew too many people who’d learned that the hard way.
“Hey. Clint.” Logan nudged me clumsily. “Earth t’Clint.”
I shook myself. When had the CO stopped talking? Were all the ceremonies over?
I turned to Logan. “What? Sorry.”
He laughed. “Space cadet.” Gesturing over his shoulder, he said, “I’m gonna get another drink. You sure you don’t want anything?”
Gritting my teeth, I said, “No, I’m fine.” And you don’t need any more either, especially if you’re too drunk to remember why I don’t drink.
He rose unsteadily and stumbled off toward the bar.
Scowling, I reached for my sweaty glass and took a drink.
A few years ago, I probably wouldn’t have been quite so annoyed that Logan was getting this drunk. And I probably would’ve had a couple of drinks with him. On the other hand, a few years ago, it would’ve been a moot point because I would’ve been here with my ex-wife. Neither of us would’ve been drinking heavily anyway because it’d been one of a handful of nights each year that we’d rented a hotel room for some couple time while the kids had stayed with Grandma and Grandpa.
But those days were over, and my ability to drink myself senseless had played no small part in destroying my marriage, and—
I winced at the painful barrage of memories.
Have a drink? No, thank you.
He knew why I didn’t drink, though, and he kept asking. Not only would he keep drinking himself stupid, he’d keep egging me on to join him. Aside from the shit inside my own head, Logan was the single biggest threat to my sobriety these days.
And somehow, I’d had to wait until we’d announced our relationship to God and everyone to realize I couldn’t spend one more night with him. I couldn’t—
“Clint?” That time, it was a voice that didn’t raise my hackles.
I turned toward Commander Wil—Travis. Not at work. Call him Travis.
He lifted his eyebrows. “You all right?”
“Yeah. Yeah.” I waved a hand. “I’m . . . I’m good, yeah.”
He watched me, no expression at all to let me know if he was concerned, or thought I was an idiot, or maybe a little of both.
I took a swig of ice water and casually looked around to avoid Travis’s blue-eyed scrutiny. If he thought I was an idiot, he was right. I was relieved that I didn’t have to worry about whether people knew I was queer—it was the first time I’d ever done anything close to coming out, so that was a shaky plus. But I wasn’t so sure I liked being the guy who was dating the cute-but-sloppily-drunk dumbass. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea.
I twisted around to find him in the crowd. He was at one of the bars, having an animated conversation with someone who looked equally inebriated.
Maybe it wasn’t a good idea?
Swearing under my breath, I turned back around. This was going to be a long night. Lord help us all when they opened up the dance floor.
Moments after Logan stumbled back to the table, a waiter came by to send us up to the buffet.
“All right!” One of the guys from Travis’s department stood, rubbing his hands together. “Chow time.”
“About damn time.” Travis winced as he rose, and his daughter said something I couldn’t hear. He gestured dismissively. With his other hand, he gingerly rubbed the middle of his back. Then he twisted like he was trying to loosen up a crick, and followed her toward the buffet. I hadn’t known him long, but I’d never seen him walk without a limp, and it seemed more pronounced tonight. His daughter motioned for him to go ahead of her as they joined the line. As I watched them—surreptitiously of course—I swore she was deliberately positioning herself so anyone squeezing past them would bump her and not him.
It wasn’t unusual to see service members with visible pain, especially if they’d been in for any length of time. Being a commander, he’d probably been in at least a couple of years longer than me. Plenty of time to get battered and beaten by the nature of the job. And since he had wings on his uniform, he’d been a pilot at some point in his career. Maybe he’d ejected. God knew every flyboy I’d ever met who’d survived an ejection walked a little uncomfortably at times.
I pulled my gaze away from him so no one would catch me staring. Wasn’t that what I needed—bring a guy to the ball, realize we were a huge mistake, and then get caught ogling another man. Yep, this was going to be a great night.
The buffet line moved quickly for once, and we made it to the table lined with chafing dishes. For as drunk as he was, Logan managed to load up his plate and make it back to his seat without incident. I didn’t know if that impressed me or annoyed me. Nothing made it harder to tell someone “you’ve got a drinking problem” like evidence that he could function fine when he was intoxicated. My ex-wife could attest to that one.
As I sat down with my own plate, Travis caught my eye over the rim of his water glass. He glanced at Logan, then back at me, but said nothing.
I had expected to feel conspicuous tonight, but not like this. Being out was fine. Sitting with the drunken idiot I needed to dump, across from the man I’d sell my soul to sleep with? Crap. Clearly it should’ve been a pre-ball sign when I’d been getting steadily more frustrated with Logan while fantasizing more and more about Travis. Who I had known would be here tonight.
No, I had not thought this through.
Except he had a daughter, so he was probably straight. Except that assumption made zero sense because I had three kids and I was anything but straight. The only things I knew about Commander—about Travis was that he had an adult daughter and wasn’t wearing a wedding band. So basically, I knew nothing about him. Aside from the fact that I’d been wanting him since I’d transferred here.
Fuck my life.
Avoiding eye contact with anyone, I picked at my food. It was decent, all things considered—I’d been to some military functions with food that was barely fit for human consumption—but any appetite I’d had was gone. How much longer was I assigned to this command? Would it be pathetic to start prodding for a transfer to someplace where this Navy Ball hadn’t happened?
Yeah, it would be. And I wouldn’t. Especially since I was probably the only one here who’d care about any of this after tonight. But goddamn, in this moment, it sure felt like the reasonable, rational thing to do.
I reached for my drink and cautiously glanced around the table. Logan was chatting with Wolcott’s wife, who was almost as drunk as he was. Everyone else was caught up in their own conversations—in between shooting the two drunks irritated looks—including Travis and his daughter, who were talking about something with Stevenson and her husband.
Discreetly, Travis took something out of his pocket and looked at it under the edge of the table. I thought it was a smartphone, but his phone was next to his drink. And whatever was in his hand had a couple of thin wires coming off it. His daughter glanced at him, concern pulling her eyebrows together, but neither of them said anything.
Then he shifted, grimacing, and put the device back in his pocket. As he did, his eyes met mine, but we both quickly broke eye contact. I thought some color appeared in his cheeks. In this light, though, it was impossible to be sure.
Travis returned to his conversation, and I returned to chasing a piece of . . . beef? Well, it resembled beef, anyway, and I chased it around my plate with my fork.
Logan nudged me. “I’m going to hit up the buffet for more. You want anything?”
“No, I’m good. Thanks.”
He got up, wobbled hard enough he had to grab my shoulder for balance, and clumsily made his way toward the buffet. I watched him go, feeling like the world’s biggest asshole because I was already rehearsing how I was going to cut him loose at the end of the night.
Yes. Tonight. I didn’t need this anymore. Especially if I was going to stick to that promise I’d made to my ex-wife, our attorneys, the judge, and the fucking Navy to stay out of the bottle.
Do you want this guy, or do you want your kids back?
My throat tightened.
Then I realized that, while the ballroom was still noisy with dozens of conversations, my table had fallen silent. When I turned, I realized everyone was watching Logan or me. The last few heads turned, and they were all looking at me.
Heat rushed into my face. I cleared my throat as I reached for my glass.
Oh God. Say something. Say something!
Bailey snickered, tilting his glass toward Logan. “Boy can really hold his liquor, can’t he?”
I pleaded with the ground to open up and swallow me right then and there, but managed a quiet chuckle. “Ex-Marine. What can I say?”
To my great relief, everyone at the table laughed.
“That explains it,” Stevenson said. “The Marines can hold plenty of liquor. Problem is they don’t know what to do with it.”
“Not like Sailors,” Bailey said proudly.
Everyone laughed again and raised their glasses. I was still mortified, but joined in. At least they were all taking him in stride.
“You have my sympathy.” Travis absently ran his finger around the rim of his drink. “I took a guy like that to a buddy’s wedding once.”
I blinked. “You . . .”
“Yeah.” Travis chuckled, gaze fixed on Logan. “Ex-Marine too, if I remember right. Anyway, he drank like a fish, and it was a fucking disaster.”
Kimber groaned. “Oh my God. You’re talking about Nate Grayson, aren’t you?”
Bailey smirked. “Wasn’t that the guy who hooked up with the bride’s dad?”
“Yep.” Travis grimaced. “I’m surprised my friend still spoke to me after that.”
The table again erupted in laughter, and suddenly everyone was coming out with disastrous wedding stories. I couldn’t have been more relieved, especially as Logan returned to his seat.
But at the same time, my stomach was wound up in a whole new set of knots.
So Travis . . .
Took a guy to a wedding?
He’s . . .
So now I felt like an epic idiot for being nervous about coming out to this crowd. They obviously all either knew Travis was gay, or didn’t care. Shit. I really should’ve just mentioned in passing that I was dating a guy, and that would’ve been the end of it. Especially since tonight would also be the end of me dating his ass. Pity I hadn’t gotten my head together before I’d made myself look like a tool in front of the man I’d been lusting after. The man who, it turned out, was not-straight enough that he openly and casually talked about taking a man as his date to a wedding.
Yep, this night was one for the history books. Best night of my life, or some bullshit like that.
Movement at the other side of the room caught my eye, and when I turned my head, that knot in my stomach turned to pure horror. The deejay and his assistant were settling in behind the booth, probably getting ready to fire up the music.
Which meant dancing.
I slowly turned toward Logan. He was in the middle of animatedly telling some story to Wolcott’s wife, unloading half his drink on himself, which he so far hadn’t noticed. But he would. Once that music started, he’d be on his feet, tugging me toward the floor, and I would have to fake my own death or go into witness protection rather than risk crossing paths with any of these people ever again.
I touched his shoulder. “Hey.”
He faced me. “Hmm?”
“Listen, um . . .” I hesitated. “Maybe we should get going.”
Logan’s glazed eyes lit up, and he grinned as he slid a hand over my thigh. “Yeah, we should.”
I fought the urge to squirm out from under his touch. He was in for a surprise when we got to his place, but if the prospect of going home and getting laid—even after we’d just eaten—was enough to get him out of here so I could break this off? Fine. Leading him on for an hour if only to get us away from my coworkers before I dropped the hammer . . .
Well, I’d find a way to sleep at night.
* * * * * * *
As I pulled into the parking lot below Logan’s apartment complex, my stomach lurched. Regardless of how much I hated confrontation and awkward conversations, this one needed to happen.
Being around him when he drank was dangerous, I reminded myself. Unless I wanted my life to fall apart again, I had to stay sober, and that wasn’t easy when I was around someone who wasn’t, no matter how much I liked the guy. Or the sober version of him, anyway. It hurt, and it would for a while, but I . . . I just couldn’t anymore.
So he had to go.
And now that we were here, it was showtime.
I shut off the engine, and Logan stumbled on his way out of the car. Fortunately, it was dark and he was distracted, so he didn’t see me rolling my eyes before I came around to help him.
He steadied himself on the door. “Man. I am . . .”
Drunk? You don’t say.
I held out my hand. “Keys?”
He fumbled in his pockets before he finally found them, and dropped them into my hand.
Thank God he lived on the first floor. I was not in the mood to help him navigate stairs—the walk up to his door was challenging enough.
“Watch that step,” I said, as if he’d never approached his own apartment before.
He looked down, and as hard as he concentrated on taking that step, I wondered if he would’ve face-planted if I hadn’t said something. Jesus.
I unlocked the door, toed it open, and handed back his keys.
Grinning, he tugged at my jacket. “Come on in. Let’s tear up your uniform.”
I pried his fingers off my clothes. “How about no.”
“Huh?” Logan stiffened, and he might’ve even sobered up some. “What the fuck?”
“I’m gonna go.” I straightened my jacket. “And listen, you’re a great guy and all, but I think it’s time to—”
“Seriously? I went to that boring bullshit and hung out with you and your coworkers, and we’re not even going to fuck?”
I folded my arms across my chest, probably making a mess of my medals in the process. “Looks to me like you’re too drunk to fuck.”
He laughed. “Oh come on. We’ve fucked when I’ve been drunker than this.” Logan reached for my waist, and I sidestepped the advance.
“Yeah, I know we have.” Why didn’t I do this sooner? “And we’re not going to anymore.”
“Why the fuck not? You weren’t complaining last time—”
“You wouldn’t have noticed if I had been,” I snapped.
He blinked. Then his eyes narrowed and he stabbed a finger at me. “This is bullshit, Clint. I didn’t go sit through all that Navy shit just so we could—”
“You know what?” I put up my hands and took a step back. “We can talk about this again when you’re sober, but I’m done. I’m out.” I started to leave, but he grabbed my elbow.
Any other time, he might’ve been able to pull me back toward him. Tonight, though, lunging at me like that was enough to throw him off-balance, and he used my arm for support more than to actually stop me.
I casually pulled away from his grasp, leaving him to slump against the wall. “We’ll talk later. But I’m done with this shit.”
This time, when I turned to go, he wasn’t quick enough to catch up with me. He shouted after me, though—screaming slurred obscenities and suggesting I go fuck myself if I wasn’t going to fuck him.
“Thanks for making my decision that much easier,” I muttered as I got into my car. The slamming door cut off most of his shouts. The engine coming to life muffled the rest. Without so much as a backwards glance, I pulled out of the parking space and left his apartment complex. Whatever he was shouting at me I couldn’t hear, but his neighbors undoubtedly did. Fine. Let them call the cops or the landlord or whatever. I was over it and I was out of here.
Tomorrow, when he was sober, we could hash this out properly. There’d be more shouting and swearing, no doubt, and the finality would hurt, but I was one hundred percent done now. And feeling like an idiot for holding out until tonight just so I could bring a date to the Navy Ball.
A few blocks away from Logan’s apartment, I stopped at an intersection. Left would take me to my place. Right would lead back to the hotel.
Tapping my thumbs on the wheel, I looked at the clock on the dash. It was only ten. The ball usually went until one or two at least.
Which meant there was time. I could go back. See if Travis was still there.
And what if he is, Clint? Then what?
My heart sped up and my stomach fluttered.
Yeah. Then what?
Only one way to find out.
So I turned right and floored it.
“How are you holding up?” Kimber leaned over the back of her chair. “You look like you’re in pain.”
I’m always in pain, sweetheart. I smiled. “I’ll be fine.”
“You sure? We can go if—”
“I’m fine. Promise.”
Her eyebrow arched. “Dad, you’re sweating.”
I dabbed at my forehead, and sure enough, my fingers came back slick. As I wiped them on my napkin, I forced another smile. “Listen, it’s not going to be any better or worse at home. And these chairs are surprisingly comfortable, so I don’t mind staying a while longer.”
“Dad, if you’re—”
“I’m fine. I might go out and have a cigarette, but otherwise . . .”
She scowled, but shrugged. “All right. You know we can leave anytime.”
“I know. Go have fun.”
“Okay. Just say so if you want to take off.”
“I will. Go.”
She headed back out to the dance floor, and I took a deep swallow of ice water.
That cigarette was tempting as hell, especially after I’d been through a couple of beers, but I didn’t move yet. I wasn’t sure I dared, because the truth was, the pain was getting unbearable. The TENS unit was turned up as high as I could stand it, to the point it was more irritating than helpful. Instead of the electrical pulses feeling like spiders dancing on my skin, it felt like they were biting my skin.
I sighed. Well, there was no point in burning up the batteries for nothing, so I turned the unit down.
I’d gone through all the Motrin I’d brought with me. More and more, it looked like the only way I was sleeping tonight was with the help of one of the pain meds I’d been hoarding. Medical was stingy as fuck about anything besides Motrin, and the Navy frowned on using actual painkillers for any length of time. Another one of those things that was technically allowed if Medical deemed it necessary, but was a bullet train ticket to a medical retirement.
So on that rare occasion I got my hands on something stronger, I rationed that shit like they were the last pills on earth. When I did take them, I just prayed that wasn’t the week I was called in for a random drug test.
I shifted in my chair, gritting my teeth at the fresh pain exploding along my spine. Good thing I had those strong meds at home, even if the means of acquiring them had been unpleasant. I was probably the only man alive who’d ever been thankful for a kidney stone. That weekend last spring had been hell, but I’d gotten a bottle of Percocet as a consolation prize and still had most of it left, so I actually stood a chance at sleeping tonight.
Now I understand why no one can tell the difference between a chronic pain sufferer and a drug addict.
I wiped a hand over my face and breathed as deeply as my uniform and muscle spasms allowed. Kimber was having a good time, and I didn’t want to cut her evening short. These events were rare, and she didn’t get many other opportunities to dress up and dance. Maybe someday she’d be ready to go to clubs and parties again on her own, but until that time, she stuck with events like the Navy Ball. And I’d happily go with her and knuckle through the pain until she was damn good and ready to leave.
I flagged down a waiter and grabbed another glass of water. For a minute or two, I wondered if I could talk him into getting me some ice—preferably wrapped in a dish towel, thank you—that I could lean against, but decided against it. Kimber would take one look at me getting an ice pack from a waiter, and drag me out the door.
A cigarette might help. The thought of it made some of the Pavlovian response kick in and relax muscles all over my body. Not the ones that hurt, of course, but maybe if I actually went out and lit up, I’d feel better.
Holding my breath, I rose. Fresh, eye-watering pain shot down my spine, which I’d expected, and I carefully breathed through it as I buttoned my jacket.
Yep, definitely gonna have to get this fucker tailored before next year.
The button held, though. Before I left the table, I checked my pockets for my cigarettes and lighter. Then I looked around, found Kimber, and held up my cigarette pack. She nodded before going back to what looked like a flirty conversation with an enlisted kid.
I worked my way around the edge of the room instead of through the crowd so no one would jostle me.
I made it to the exit and stepped outside into the chill October air. I hadn’t even realized how stuffy the room had become until I was breathing fresh, clean, vaguely salt-scented air.
Fresh, clean air that was about to be polluted thanks to the Camel I was about to smoke. I pulled one out of the pack, put it between my lips, and lit it.
That Pavlovian effect intensified. The nicotine wasn’t anywhere near my bloodstream yet, but even as I took that first drag, some of the tension in my neck and shoulders eased. I cautiously rolled my shoulders under my tight jacket. The spasm in the center of my back wasn’t moving anytime soon, and the TENS wasn’t helping much.
Get ready for me, Percocet. I took a deep drag from my cigarette. We’re going to bed together tonight.
In the parking lot, a car door slammed. The distinct click of dress shoes came closer, and I turned my head.
And almost dropped my cigarette.
Was I already getting loopy on the Percocet I hadn’t even taken yet? Or was Clint really back? Strolling up the sidewalk? Coming right toward me? Alone?
I blinked a few times. Nope, this was no phantom drug side effect. That was Clint, and he was back, and was . . .
I stood straighter, schooling the wince out of my expression. “Hey. I thought you called it a night.”
“I did. But then . . .” He shook his head. “Anyway. Can, uh . . .” He gestured toward the door to the ball still going on without us. “Can I buy you a drink?”
“Uh . . .” I really am having premature hallucinations, aren’t I? “I . . . Seriously?”
“Yeah. Kind of feel like . . . uh, like I owe you and everybody else for putting up with Logan.” As soon as he said it, something in him settled, as if he’d been searching for an explanation and finally found one that satisfied him. He took a deep breath, and shifted slightly, as if he couldn’t quite stay still. “Do you want anything?”
Oh, I definitely want—
“A Coke is fine. I’ve, uh, gotta drive.” Which was true. Kimber had had quite a bit to drink tonight, so it was either me or a cab. “Here.” I reached for my wallet. “You fly, I’ll—”
“I’ll get it. Don’t worry about it.” He flashed a shy smile. “Should I come back out here, or . . .?”
“No. I . . .” I glanced at the cigarette in my hand, then dropped it on the ground and crushed it under my heel, ignoring the twinge that motion sent from my hip to my back. “I was heading back inside.”
“Meet you at the table?”
We separated, and I headed back to where we’d been sitting earlier. Everyone else had cleared out—they were either dancing, socializing, or waiting for more drinks. Fine by me. I didn’t need anyone watching me lower myself into my chair like I was eighty-five instead of forty-five. Or notice me cursing when a spasm knifed across my back and made my eyes water.
I leaned my forearms on the table, lifting my shoulders as much as I could to stretch the aggravated muscles. The spasm started to subside, but it wasn’t in any hurry.
“Are you all right?” Damn. Clint’s voice.
I nodded, and cautiously released my breath. Lifting my head, I forced a smile. “Old injury.” I took out the TENS unit and cranked that fucker back up. “Still likes to come back and haunt me sometimes.”
“Those are a bitch, aren’t they?” He set a Coke in front of me and sat in the next chair with what might’ve been a Coke, or maybe Coke and something stronger.
I rolled my stiff shoulders. “Eh, life in the military, am I right?”
“I’ll drink to that.” He raised his glass. “This life ain’t for the faint of heart.”
“Amen.” I clinked mine against his and took a sip.
“And, um . . .” He lowered his gaze. “By the way, I hope my date wasn’t too much of an idiot for—”
“Don’t sweat it. You should’ve seen Wolcott’s wife at the Christmas party last year.”
He met my eyes. “Really?”
“Oh yeah. And Stevenson’s husband got so shitfaced, he tried to pick a fight with the chaplain.”
“The chaplain?” Clint sputtered. “Over what?”
“Who knows?” I shrugged. “When you’re that drunk, why does anything need to make sense?”
I couldn’t be sure, but I thought he winced. Averting his eyes again, he quietly said, “Isn’t that the truth.”
I studied him, not sure if the wince had been leftover embarrassment from his idiot date, or something deeper. Whatever it was, he probably didn’t want to get into it, so I changed the subject.
“So, um.” I drummed my fingers nervously. “Are you settling in okay? To the new town and all?”
Clint nodded. “It’s nice to be out of the desert.”
“The desert?” I paused. “Oh right. You came from Nellis, didn’t you?”
“Yep. Man, I did not sign up for the Navy to spend my life in Nevada.”
“Could be worse. I know a few people who’ve landed in Nebraska.”
He wrinkled his nose. “Ugh. The Navy does not belong in landlocked states.”
“Tell that to the Air Force,” I muttered. “They’re the ones who need the Navy to operate the complicated, technical shit.”
That got a laugh out of him. Nothing like the good-natured rivalry between military branches to lighten up a conversation.
“So, you were a drone pilot, right?” I asked.
His laughter faded a bit, and he sat straighter. “We prefer RAP. But yes.”
“RAP?” Come on, Travis. You haven’t even taken the drugs yet. “Remind me what that is again?”
“Remote aircraft pilot.”
“Right. Right. Got it.” I took a sip of my drink, and with it, swallowed a few smartass comments about how a fancy name didn’t change the fact that if you don’t leave the ground, you’re not a damn pilot.
Says the man who hasn’t left the ground in too many fucking years.
As if for emphasis, one of the spasms in the center of my back tightened, catching my breath. God, if I’d been sitting here with anybody else, I’d have flagged down my daughter, bowed out, and gotten the hell home for my date with Percocet. As it was, I probably wasn’t going to last too much longer, but this was the first chance I’d had to sit down with Clint, one-on-one, outside the office, and with the knowledge that he wasn’t straight after all. I could breathe through a few muscle spasms if I had to.
“How long were you a drone—RAP?”
Clint fidgeted, wrapping both hands around his drink and staring into the glass. “Little too long.”
Okay, so that topic was a minefield too. Maybe the best approach was to let him choose a direction, and I’d follow his lead.
The silence hung there for an uncomfortable minute or so.
Then, finally, he said, “So your date really hooked up with the bride’s father?”
A relieved laugh burst out of me. I didn’t even care about the pain it sent radiating across the back of my ribs. “He really did. That was . . . awkward.”
He chuckled. “I can imagine. Did she at least know her dad was into men?”
“Nope.” I shook my head slowly. “Pretty sure it was news to her mother too.”
“Oh my God.”
“Yeah. Let me tell you, nobody was surprised when the bride’s sister eloped the next year, and her brother had a dry wedding a few months later.”
“I believe it.” He held my gaze, giving me a chance to see how dark his eyes really were. “They didn’t blame you, though, did they?”
“No, no. Hell, the bride actually felt really bad for me because she thought we’d had something serious going on. She felt a lot better once I told her we’d only been out on a few dates by that point.”
“That’s good. I can only imagine what holidays are like in that household now.”
I grimaced. “I heard through the grapevine that they were pretty awkward for the first couple of years.” I was about to mention the number of antiques and heirlooms that were smashed the next day after the father of the bride’s walk of shame, but right then, Kimber appeared beside me.
She looked at Clint. “Oh hey. I didn’t know you came back.”
Clint shrugged. “Had to drop someone off.”
Kimber mouthed a silent Oh. She glanced at me and gestured with her beer bottle toward her seat, eyebrows up as if to ask if it was okay to sit down.
I nodded back, so she did.
“Getting tired of dancing already?” I asked.
“Just need a break for a few minutes.” She took a swig, then peered into the bottle with a scowl on her face. “What the hell? When did this one get empty?”
Clint and I both laughed.
“They have a way of doing that, don’t they?” he said.
“Little bastards,” she muttered.
“You want another one?” I asked.
I rolled my eyes. “Drunk.”
“Shut up. I am not.”
“Uh-huh.” I glanced at my soda, and realized it was getting pretty low too. “You know, I could use one myself. I’ll go get them this time.” I started to stand, and something in my back . . . moved. It wasn’t a spasm. It wasn’t a twinge. It wasn’t even really pain—just that ominous shift of soft tissue that meant things were going to get bad.
Kimber gently grasped my arm. “Dad?”
“You okay?” Clint asked.
I swallowed. “I think it might be time to call it a night.”
Instantly, Clint was on his feet. “Do you need a lift?”
I closed my eyes and exhaled. As much as it killed me to admit it, I needed someone to drive us home tonight. Swallowing my pride was the best option I had right then, so I turned to him. “You don’t mind?”
“No, of course not.” His keys were already in his hand.
“I’ll go get my coat.” Kimber let go of my arm. “Do you have the claim ticket?”
“Yeah.” I took out my wallet, fished out the ticket, and passed it to her. “We’ll meet you outside.”
“Got it.” Ticket in hand, she hurried toward the coat check.
I leaned on the chair for a second, cautiously stretching my back to gauge how bad this was going to get and how fast. Pretty bad and pretty fast, if the rapidly spreading tension was anything to go by.
“We should get out to the car,” I said, concentrating on not letting my rib cage move more than it absolutely had to while I was talking.
“Good idea.” Clint walked ahead, clearing a path for me as he went. As soon as we were outside, he turned around. “Why don’t you wait here, and I’ll bring the car up?”
Without speaking, I nodded. I could have kissed him right then even if I hadn’t been fantasizing about it for ages. I wasn’t in the mood for anything that didn’t involve sleep or pain pills, but he was a saint for being this considerate. Or maybe I’d just spent too much time with people who weren’t.
Moments later, Kimber appeared with her coat over her arm, and Clint parked at the end of the walk. Thank God I didn’t have to put on a coat. The dinner jacket I was wearing was warm enough anyway, and the motions would have been too painful.
With my daughter’s help, I eased myself into the passenger seat of Clint’s car. Then she got into the back, and Clint pulled away from the curb so carefully and smoothly, he must’ve had experience driving with someone who was in a lot of pain. At the stop sign at the end of the road, he stopped just as gently.
“Which gate?” he asked.
“Gate two,” Kimber said. Though she’d had quite a few drinks tonight, she was sober enough to direct him back to our house, so I left her to it. Meanwhile, I closed my eyes and concentrated on breathing without snapping my ribs off my spine.
After we’d left the base and were on the highway, she asked, “You have some of the strong stuff at home, right, Dad?”
“Of course.” I turned to Clint, half expecting a raised eyebrow over what I meant by strong stuff, but when he glanced my way, the only thing that registered in his expression looked like genuine concern.
I closed my eyes again.
And while she continued directing him toward our place, I sent up a prayer of thanks that he’d come back to the Navy Ball tonight.