Featuring Afterburner by Lex Valentine
M/M Erotic Contemporary Gay Romance
Novel length anthology (4 novellas by Lex Valentine, Maura Anderson, William Maltese and George Seaton)
Sebastian “Bas” Marchetti has spent his life doing two things, hiding his sexuality and flying. Born into an aerobatic family, Bas learned to fly long before he could drive. After a stellar career in the military that encompassed a turn as a U.S.A.F. Thunderbird and a test pilot, Bas leaves the service when his father dies in order to take over operations of the Flying Marchettis. Fully out of the closet and unwilling to return to it, Bas struggles with the demons of his past military career when he meets test pilot Ryder “Flip” Beckett. Together, Ryder and Bas find a love that neither is willing to give up. With Ryder living the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, they struggle to have a normal relationship. Bas loves Ryder enough to be his dirty little secret. However, that’s not enough for Ryder who loves his man so much he’ll risk court martial to be with Bas.
Bas heard the boom before he saw the drift of smoke in the distant sky. Fear took instant hold of him, pain stabbing his chest. He stared at the narrow trail of black smoke that rose from the far off desert floor. The area Ryder would have been flying over today.
His hand clutched the wrench in a white knuckled grip. He knew the flight patterns for the test pilots. He also knew the sound of a crash when he heard one, knew what the dark smoke meant. Heartbeat picking up speed, he put away his tools and locked the hangar with shaking hands. If there was a crash, it didn’t mean it was Ryder. The wing had more than one jet pilot. He jogged the quarter mile back to the house, afraid his cell phone would start to vibrate in his pocket.
Sweat beaded his forehead and dampened his armpits by the time he reached the garage. His gut told him it was Ryder. His head argued odds were against it. Still, he jerked his keys and phone from his jeans pocket. He got in his truck and headed toward Edwards, conscious of the phone lying on the seat beside him. As he ate up the miles toward the base gate, he prayed the phone wouldn’t ring. God, he didn’t know what he’d do if it rang.
Shivering despite the heat, fear wrapped around him, tightening like a tourniquet, staving off full-blown panic with its mind-numbing qualities. He drew a shuddering breath as he approached the gate. Seeing the stickers on his windshield, the guards waved him on through. Once inside the gate, Bas pulled to the curb momentarily. He didn’t see anything that would indicate there’d been a catastrophic accident. No servicemen rushing around. No base lockdown. No sirens.
For a moment, he didn’t know whether to head toward the testing wing or not. He had no rights. He might be Ryder’s partner, but that meant nothing to the Air Force. They could have been legally married by the laws of the state of California – not that any such law had been passed yet—and it wouldn’t matter to the military.
Anger welled inside Bas as he realized his phone would not ring. If there was an accident, if his partner was injured or dead, no one would call him. He glared at his silent phone. He had no rights. The man who meant everything to him could be dead and no one would tell him. According to the Air Force, he had no right to ask and they didn’t have to tell.
Pulling the truck out onto the street, Bas drove toward the test pilot school. He needed to ask someone who would tell him. Someone he trusted.
He stopped in front of the building where he reported to work twice a week and got out of the truck. Coming down the steps of the building was his boss and friend, Mike Aarons. When Mike headed straight toward him with an iron hard expression on his face, Bas felt his stomach sink. Nausea rose within him. He leaned against his front fender and clenched his fists to control his shaking.
“Mike?” His voice sounded like sandpaper as he tried to speak around the lump in his throat.
Sympathy washed over the colonel’s face and for a split second, Bas thought Ryder was dead. Then a little smile quirked up Mike’s mouth.
“He’s fine, Bas.” The deep tones of the colonel’s voice reached down into the pit of Bas’s stomach and warmed him. “He punched out. He’s got a concussion and a few scrapes and bruises but he’s okay. They’ll be releasing him from the base hospital in a bit. He’ll need to go home and go to bed. He’ll be de-briefed tomorrow when his head is clearer.”
Bas slumped against his truck and tried to mentally pull himself together. Ryder was okay and that’s all that mattered. “I can’t pick him up.” The acid words ate at his guts fueling his anger at the politics of the country both he and Ryder had risked their lives for repeatedly.
The colonel shook his head. “Look, I’ll have one of the guys take me down there and I’ll bring him back in his car. It can stay here overnight and you can bring him in tomorrow when you come to work. I wish I could tell you things were different, but they aren’t yet. Hopefully, by the time Ryder retires things will be the way they should be. No one’s ethnicity, gender, or sexuality should factor into their service to their country. You and Ryder have done your duty and your government appreciates it. They just don’t want to know who you sleep with in the privacy of your own home. And even then, if a serious conflict broke out tomorrow, Uncle Sam would be sending both of you to the front line. You’re the best there is regardless of your sexual orientation.”
Drawing a deep, shaking breath Bas nodded. “I know. It’s just hard. I’ve never felt this way about someone before. And honestly, Mike, it’s harder for me than for Ryder and he’s the one who is still active duty.”
Mike Aarons grinned. “No offense to you, Bas, but that boy has the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever met. Whomever he loves will always come first with him and everything else be damned.” He clapped Bas on the shoulder in that familiar male gesture of comfort. “Lemme get Bubba to run me down there to get him. You just hang tight.”
Bas sat in his truck and tried not to worry. Mike’s words kept echoing in his head. He knew that men with the top notch skills he and Ryder had would never be free of service to their country should a war break out. He knew the climate seemed to be changing for the better for gays in the military too. However, it didn’t stop his heart from aching with the need to be with Ryder now when his lover was shaken and hurting after ejecting from his F-35. Bas just needed to touch him and breathe in his scent and know that Ryder was okay.
Staring at his hands, he noted the tremor of his fingers. He raised them to the steering wheel and gripped it hard. For thirty long minutes he sat in the truck in the hot desert sun, oblivious to the heat, trying not to panic, and filled with the need to see and touch Ryder. Finally, he saw Ryder’s Mustang coming toward him. He got out of the truck and stood awkwardly by the fender as Mike parked the Mustang next to the school and got out. The passenger door opened and Ryder’s long legs appeared. He angled himself carefully out of the small car, shoulders and legs moving stiffly in his green flight suit. His head turned and their gazes met.
Heart pounding, breath catching in his throat, Bas took a step forward. Ryder’s eye sockets seemed slightly sunken and one cheekbone had a bruise, but his blue eyes blazed with emotion as he started walking toward Bas. In a split second, Bas noticed the stiffness of his lover’s gait and the slight limp. Without thought, he broke into a run. When he reached Ryder, he grabbed him around the waist with one arm, half hugging him, half holding him up.
“Are you okay?” he asked hoarsely, trying to control his emotions.
Ryder laughed softly. “Yeah. Banged up a little but otherwise okay.” He leaned his weight on Bas’s supporting arm. “My knee hurts like fuck.”
“Doc says he’ll need to take these once he gets home and someone needs to keep an eye on him because of the concussion.” Mike handed Bas a bag from the base pharmacy and Ryder’s keys. “The car will be fine here overnight. You just take it easy and do what Doc says, Ryder. Bas, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Mike walked away and entered the test pilot school. The door whooshed closed behind him, leaving Bas and Ryder alone. Bas swallowed hard and clenched his fingers around the bag.
“Let’s get you in the truck,” he said gruffly. “If you need to be watched, you’ll have to stay at my place tonight.”
Ryder’s expression was ironic. Both of them knew Ryder had no intention of staying the night in the apartment. Bas wouldn’t have been able to bear it if he had. He could barely stop himself from stripping off Ryder’s flight suit and checking out his injuries right there on the street. Instead, he helped his lover into the truck, noting how Ryder winced when he bent his knee and how he favored his right shoulder a little too.
Bas got in the truck and turned the AC on full blast. Ryder let out a long sigh.
“That feels good. I feel like I’ve sweat off twenty pounds in this damn suit,” he groaned, yanking the zipper down to his waist.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” Bas asked as he turned toward the base gate.
“Not particularly. In part, because I’m not quite sure. And the other part is that my damned head hurts like hell.” Ryder grimaced. “I’ve only ever punched out once before and it wasn’t pretty then either. I’d forgotten how bad your body can feel afterward.”
Bas drove through the gate and out on the main road. Five minutes later when he turned down the narrow two lane road that led to Forza, he yanked the truck off the road onto the shoulder. Thrusting the gear shift into park, he swiftly popped his seat belt off and twisted in his seat to slam his mouth down on Ryder’s. One hand came up to gently cup the back of his lover’s head as his lips and tongue demanded a response from Ryder. The kiss held a note of frantic worry in it and Bas ran his free hand over Ryder, just to make sure he was all in one piece. Ryder’s tongue flicked out to tangle with his and Bas moaned. Pulling away, he stared into Ryder’s dark blue eyes.
“Fuck, you scared me. I heard the boom and saw the smoke and I knew it was you,” he rasped. His eyes blinked closed for a second on a wave of pain. “I took off for the base right away and when I got there it dawned on me. I looked at my phone and I knew that even if it was you…if something bad had happened…my phone wasn’t going to ring.”
Bas could hear his voice shaking with fear and pain as he relived those moments when he realized he had no rights where Ryder was concerned. The sense of helplessness and injustice rose within him once more. He wanted to lash out at someone for the position he’d been put in. The person he loved most in the whole world was someone he couldn’t live with openly, couldn’t marry legally, and whose employer would court martial him and take away his retirement if their relationship was found out. He gritted his teeth at the unfairness of it.
Ryder’s hand stroked down his cheek. “We can fix that. And we will. Without admitting a thing to anyone,” he whispered. “I want you to have rights where I’m concerned and I’d like to have them in return. What the hell are they gonna say to me anyway? I’ll just tell them it’s ‘cause my mom is so far away and in poor health. Who the fuck are they to say I can’t have a durable power of attorney for health care giving you the right to make decisions about me? In fact, now that today’s accident happened, they probably won’t think anything of it at all, which is how it should be.”
Catching Ryder’s hand in his, Bas kissed his fingers briefly then put his seatbelt back on. He pulled out onto the empty road and reached out to take Ryder’s hand in his again, threading their fingers together. They drove in silence the rest of the way home.