One Marine, Hero — Excerpt

OneMarine,Hero-400x600Rainbow Runner UPAmazon  — All RomanceB&NDreamspinner Press
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270 pages from Dreamspinner Press

He’s a hero to everyone but himself.

Marine helicopter pilot Captain Jake Woodley struggles after receiving the Medal of Honor for a mission where he didn’t bring every man back alive. Being called a hero and having his photo plastered across the news makes him hate himself more. He despises his cushy job flying with the Marine One squadron, carrying the president and other officials, when he’d rather risk something, even death. He gets his wish when he’s ordered to fly a series of classified trips.

Matt “Beau” Beaumont has been relegated to covering the fashion beat after getting downsized from a hard-news position. But an unexpected invitation to a White House dinner might be the boost his career needs. Offering a hot marine an after-dinner blowjob wasn’t on Beau’s agenda, but when Jake takes him up on the proposition, some phenomenal casual sex soon blossoms into a relationship both of them crave.

When Beau’s extracurricular research uncovers defense department funding anomalies, he soon discovers the trouble goes higher than he imagined. Just as events start to make sense, the investigation puts Beau and Jake in deadly danger. It takes a daring play by Jake—risking everything he loves—to uncover the truth.

 

Excerpt

 

Chapter 1

 

BEAU HAD never received a letter from the president of the United States before.

Matthew “Beau” Beaumont stared at the elegant cream envelope he’d found propped against his monitor when he settled at his desk on this blustery Wednesday morning in late September. He picked it up and flipped it over, running his fingertips across the raised seal on the flap. He’d seen the seal ten thousand times. Everyone in Washington, DC, had. Almost everyone in the country recognized the Seal of the President of the United States.

But he’d never seen it on a document with his name before. He’d also never gotten anything in an envelope of such smooth, thick paper.

Of course the president hadn’t personally sent this. But a guy could dream. President Bergen was pretty damn hot for a leader of the free world.Instinctively he brought it to his nose and sniffed. No scent. What had he expected? The president’s aftershave? He knew President Bergen wore Chrome, and if he closed his eyes, he might pick up the citrusy layers…. No. It didn’t smell like anything—fortunately, because the most likely aroma would be from the slightly sweaty mailroom guy who distributed the everdecreasing number of real paper envelopes delivered to the District Daily newspaper office.

“Waiting for it to open itself?”

Beau spun around in his chair at the sound of Laney Tillman’s distinctive voice. She sounded like a bird caught in a car door, except when she laughed. Then she sounded like a donkey caught in a car door. You could hear Laney laughing from a block away.

This morning she stood in Beau’s cubicle wearing a mishmash of pinks and pale pastel greens. She looked like she’d been mugged by the Easter Bunny and left for dead. Beau actually closed his eyes and opened them again, hoping he’d only been having a Crayola nightmare.

As the Daily’s fashion columnist, hanging out with Laney could seriously damage Beau’s street cred. Laney’s frilly top and her pants appeared about two sizes too small, probably as result of her gig as the Daily’s food writer.

“Jesus, Laney, do not sneak up on a guy like that. I could have spilled my coffee and ruined a perfectly divine pair of new Diesels.”

They look like normal old jeans to me.”

“Of course they do. To you.” He blew her a kiss and replied in his most soothing voice. As much as he loved Laney, her clothes sense horrified him. “The way foie gras tastes like chopped liver to me.” It didn’t, but it was fun to push her buttons.

She cringed, then gave him the kind of smile a mother might give her irascible child. “Of course it does. But what’s in the envelope already?”

Beau wanted to know too. He eyed it as he took a sip of doublehazelnut, low-fat no-whip. He absolutely missed fat and whip, but the Diesels wouldn’t fit if he indulged too often. He set the cup down and slid a careful finger under the flap so as not to damage the beautiful embossed seal.

“Hurry up, I’m graying over here.” Laney yanked the envelope out of Beau’s hand and ripped it open before he could stop her. The fffft of paper tearing deflated his excitement. She slid out a thick card and waved it like her life depended on it.

“Oh. Oh! Beau!” She cleared her throat and started reading in a regal voice:

“‘The President and the First Lady request your presence at the Autumn Correspondents’ Celebration at the White House. Black Tie…’ blah blah blah.” Then she stared at him for a moment. “The correspondents’ dinner? Really? You?”

“Don’t sound so shocked.” But Beau was shocked. He grabbed the invitation from her and looked to see if it really was addressed to him. Why had he been invited?

Laney clearly wondered the same thing. “Have you ever even done a story at the White House?”

“I covered a charity fashion event the first lady sponsored a few months ago. It was to raise money for a girls’ school in Africa and—”

“That’s it?”

“What do you mean? Angelina Jolie was there too. And you should have seen what the first lady was wearing! The most gorgeous pale pink knee-length—”

“Beau!”

“What? It was beautiful. And her shoes had these little teeny—”

“Focus.”

“Would you like me to tell you what they served for lunch?” He frowned when she nodded vehemently. “Look, honey, shoes to me are like caviar to you. Why can’t you understand that?”

“Because I don’t see how what someone else is wearing is news.”

He refrained from suggesting she should start worrying about what she was wearing. “But I can understand why food is so exciting for you.” Everyone has to eat. Not everyone has to wear pink kneepads.”

“She wore a knee-length dress. Not kneepads. But she does have lovely knees.”

They had this discussion or one like it at least once a week. Despite their inability to see eye to eye on each other’s area of expertise, they got along regarding everything else, from politics to films to men, though at the moment, neither had one of those.

“When’s this dinner? And what are you going to wear?”

“You really don’t care what I’ll wear, do you?”

“No. But I can tell you’re dying to tell me.” She grinned and perched her hefty bottom on the edge of his desk. She reached for the invitation again.

“How did you get invited? I doubt many writers from the Daily did.”

“I wondered the same thing.”

The Daily was the second paper in town after the Washington Post, which attracted the cream of the crop. But downsizing meant the Post had to let some good writers go—including Beau—which was how the Daily had come about. It focused less on politics and more on everything else and included an expanded Lifestyle section. Food, fashion, and fundraisers were big news in DC, and the Daily found an increasing readership of locals who were tired of getting a king-size dose of politics when they also wanted to know which film to see or where to get the best ice cream.

“Maybe we’re finally getting some recognition,” Laney said.

“Still, I’m not exactly a correspondent.” Beau read the fine print on the invitation. “But I get to bring a plus one…. Wo—”

“Yes!”

“How do you know I was going to ask you? Maybe I needed your advice about whom to invite?”

“You mean which of your long list of lovers?”

Beau shrugged. “Right. None of them are really White House material.” “They might have a dark alley around there somewhere….”

“Bitch.” He slapped her hand. “I won’t invite you after all. I’ll Instagram minute-by-minute photos of all the lovely, lovely food they’ll be serving, just to torture you. I hear they have a different wine with each course.”

Color rose in her face. These were fighting words. “Who’s being a bitch now?”

“If you stop making fun of my sorry love life, then I’ll bring you along.”

“Deal.”

 


BEAU’S THRILL lasted another seventy-three minutes. Then someone kicked the side of his cubicle and erupted in a ball of humanized fury.

Lemme have my invitation.” A six-foot grizzly bear stared down at Beau, who rotated his chair to see what the commotion was about. The bear had a surprisingly neatly trimmed beard and a cream-colored buttondown tucked haphazardly into generic worn jeans with tatters at the edges. The pale shirt didn’t camouflage the bulge hanging over his waistband. Beau would have suggested a nice olive-colored shirt instead. But now he was face-to-face with that bulge, though he admitted he instinctively checked for another more desirable bulge.

“Sorry, who are you and why are you bellowing at me?”

“I’m not bellowing,” bellowed the bear, raising the volume another dozen decibels. He’d only been speaking loudly before, but the guy was definitely bellowing now.

“Can you use your inside voice?” Beau used his campy tone and gave the chubby bear a sweet smile.

This disarmed the bear for a moment. He blinked, then stood up to his full height. “Mike Beaumont. Senior reporter.”

Beau stood and held out a hand. “Hi Mike, nice to meet you. Do you think we’re related?”

“No. I’m positive we are not related.” He paused for a moment, appearing to consider his next words. “I’m here to collect my White House dinner invitation.” He pointed at the invitation, which Beau had propped up against his monitor.

Beau grabbed the envelope and glanced at the front. “It’s mine. It says ‘Matthew.’ That’s me. You’re Mike. Even I can read.” He winked at the other Beaumont, who pressed his lips together until they were paper white.

“There was a mistake. For some reason they sent it to you. It should have gone to me.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Because they invite me to every White House event for journalists.

And I didn’t get an invitation this time.”

“Maybe you were naughty?” Beau couldn’t help using the campy voice again. With considerable effort, he kept himself from batting his eyelashes.

“I was not naughty.”

The word sounded so ridiculous from this huge man that Beau burst out laughing. By now some of the other writers and staff were looking in his direction, and he fluttered his fingers at his audience.

“I’m sorry.” He wasn’t, but it wouldn’t do to torture the large, angry man any further. “Did you call to see if there was a mistake? Because this one is definitely addressed to me, and I’ve already got a date lined up. Of course, if someone tells me I’m not supposed to be invited, I’ll gladly hand this over.” He smiled again, but he hoped like hell there wasn’t a mistake. He really wanted to go to a big dinner at the White House. He’d give up his seat at a Prada runway show for a chance to attend a White House dinner, if only to be in the same room as the sexiest president in US history.

“I’ll be back!” Mike Beaumont said, turned on his heel, and lumbered out of Beau’s cube.

“Wait, Mike.” Beau stood. He was about the same height as Mike but only half as wide. Beau glanced at the invitation again and put aside the images of him in a tux shaking hands with the president, who would then ask him to dance. He handed the envelope over to its intended recipient.

Mike sneered and ripped it out of Beau’s hand with unexpected speed. He turned and lumbered out of the cube again.

“Oh, shit.” Laney appeared at the entrance to Beau’s cube, frowning. “It probably was for him, you know.”

Beau nodded. “I know. He was entertaining to tease.” He let out a sigh and leaned back in his chair. “Well, it was fun to dream about while it lasted. I guess the ugly stepsister is going and leaving me at home.”
“Deal.”“Forget the White House. We’d never find a parking spot. Why don’t we get dressed up anyway that night and go somewhere fancy?”

 


AT LUNCHTIME Beau dragged himself downstairs and around the corner to Subway. He ordered the sandwich with all the Italian cold cuts and cheese, then slid into a booth, but after one unsatisfying bite, he put it down on the table.

“There you are!” Laney frowned as she settled into the booth across from him.

“I never thought I’d see you in a Subway.”

“I’ll need a Silkwood shower when I leave.” She pulled Beau’s sandwich toward her, and the frown deepened. “Friends don’t let friends eat lunch meat. Unless it’s charcuterie, but that’s like comparing Korbel to

Dom Perignon.”

Beau let out a sigh as she trashed his sandwich. But he had no appetite anyway.

“What’s the matter, Beau? I’m worried. Subway is slumming it, even for you.”

“You’re not helping.” He continued dining dangerously as he slurped real soda made with high-fructose corn syrup instead of the flavored no-calorie water he usually drank. “It’s the whole invitation thing.”

“This isn’t about the party or Big Mike, is it?”

Beau shook his head. The movement made his teeth ache, and he pushed the soda toward Laney so he wouldn’t be tempted to sip more of it. “I actually like my job, but in those situations I feel like a second-class citizen.”

“No one at the paper sees you that way.”

“Mike Beaumont does. And he’s right.”

“Forget him. If he was really good, he’d be at the Post, right?”

“So would we. The Daily is, well, not the Post. And compared to hard news like I used to write, only a gig at Vogue is going to come anywhere near my old job.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You are not the only journalist downsized into a features position. How many other options did you have? It’s better than being unemployed. Or living someplace like Kansas City.” She regularly deprecated her hometown. “Until recently everything was either barbecued or fried.”

“Really? I read something recently that said Kansas City was one of the top five cultured cities in the US.”

She glared at him. “Come on, you’re still much better off than the top reporter in KC.”

“Sometimes I’m not so sure. I really loved writing hard news until the Post let everyone go unless they were covering the biggest, most controversial stories.”

“You’re really good at fashion. You always look terrific.”

“Why couldn’t you be a guy?” Beau cracked a narrow smile. He knew Laney meant well, but he cycled through these doldrums every so often. Today was worse than it had been in quite a while.

“I could if I wanted, but I like who I am right now. Look, get up and we’ll go get some of the truffles you like so much. My treat. We can pig out on as many as you want.”

“Okay.” Beau smiled and got up. Laney was the one who loved those truffles, but he’d go along to humor her so she wouldn’t worry about him. But it was going to take more than truffles to blow away the dark cloud that had settled over his mood.

Laney surprised him after the trip to the truffle shop. She wanted to talk about what they would wear when they went out for their alternative correspondents’ dinner. She insisted on flipping through the stack of fashion mags in his cube and created some of the scariest color combinations he’d ever seen. But she soon had him smiling and laughing again.

“You know what? Maybe Plan B will be more fun. If all the people there are like Mike Beaumont, I’m not so sure I even want to go,” Beau said after work as they sipped Belgian craft beers at a swanky new bar Laney wanted to try.

“Here’s to Plan B!” She raised a glass, and they toasted each other.

 


PLAN B lasted until the following day.

Tom Withers, Features Editor, came into Beau’s cube just before lunch. He had the beautiful envelope with the presidential seal in his hand and presented it to Beau.

Beau looked at it, then up at Tom, who was leaning against one wall of the cubicle. “I don’t understand.”

“Looks like it was a mistake. But the White House won’t let Mike Beaumont use this invitation. Apparently it’s some security thing. You have to show up with your own invitation because the Secret Service has to do a basic background check on you in advance. They check ID and everything.”

“So I get to keep this as a souvenir of the party that almost was?”

“The White House Social Secretary called to apologize after Mike questioned the error.” Tom grinned. “‘Questioned’ is actually a polite word. But she wanted to apologize to you. In fact, she felt so bad about the error, you’ve been added to the guest list. You’ve got an official invitation. Follow the directions to RSVP. Mike Beaumont will receive his own invitation.”

“Good thing he doesn’t have to rely on his charm to get one.” “Agreed. He’s not that charming,” Tom replied in a dry tone.

Having an awesome boss like Tom was one reason Beau had come to love this job so much. “I didn’t want to point that out.”

“He’s a good reporter. Better when he doesn’t have to talk to real people. Anyway, the social secretary was impressed with how you handed it over. She thought your gesture was charming, and worthy of an invitation.”

Beau’s spirits brightened further. Maybe he would get to dance with the president. “I’ll tell Laney the good news.”

“But speaking of charm…. Try to watch what you say. Mike Beaumont reported you for sexual harassment because you flirted with him.”

Beau recoiled. “It wasn’t real flirting—more like a defensive maneuver. Am I in trouble?”

Tom shook his head. “Hell no. His editor was laughing when he mentioned it to me. But you’ll have to do an all-day sensitivity training course next week.”

“Lesson learned.” Beau stopped smiling and nodded. “Thanks.” Tom left and Laney flounced into Beau’s cube. “Sexual harassment? What a dickhead!”

“I’m probably prohibited from using the word ‘dick’ in the office, so you summed up my thoughts.”

“How about if I’m your spokesperson when you need to say something with a sexual connotation. At least until someone else complains?”

“Deal.”

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

 

“YOU’RE JAKE Woodley, aren’t you?” The guy spoke with the slightest hesitation. His eyes danced with excitement, but his fingers trembled around his glass of beer. He rubbed his thumb up and down the glass, the movement catching Jake’s eye.

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“I thought so.” The young man smiled and the thumb movement slowed. “You look exactly like on TV.”

Jake stared through the guy and nodded to the bartender. “Another one of these.” He held up the empty shot glass, then slammed it onto the bar and slid it down the smooth surface toward the sour-faced barman.

“I’ll buy you a drink.” The young guy grinned. He had a nice smile. Nice face. Nice body too, but Jake wasn’t in the mood for nice guys. This wasn’t a gay bar, and from the guy’s demeanor, either he wasn’t gay or he was the biggest gay virgin on the planet.Jake had hit that point in the evening when he should slow down, but he didn’t want to. Fuck it, I’m on leave. He’d purposely passed the row of gay bars along South Beach, seeking a spot like this: more drunks than tourists or temptations.

“I can buy my own.”

“Oh.” Disappointment washed across the guy’s face. “I’m Bill.” He started to put a hand out to shake, then glanced at it like it belonged to someone else.

Jake didn’t say anything.

“My dad flew a Black Hawk during Desert Storm. I can’t imagine what that must be like.”

“You don’t want to.”

“Well, I do, actually. I was wondering if….”

“Where’s my tequila?” Jake turned to the bartender, who was at the other end of the not particularly long bar. “Didn’t you hear me?”

“I heard you,” the bartender said and finished drying a glass as if he had all day today and tomorrow to get to his customers. He held the glass up to the light and peered at it, then put it onto the rack and grabbed the bottle of Don Julio Jake had his eye on. He poured more into Jake’s glass. “Don’t they have dishwashers around here?”

“They do.” The bartender turned his back to Jake and started wiping the bar counter.

“So, Jake, want to—”

“No. I don’t. Don’t want to talk about flying. Don’t want to have a drink with you. If you want to hear what it’s like, go ask your fucking dad.”

The guy stared at him like a puppy who’d been kicked. Jake wasn’t sure how he felt about treating the kid like that. He’d finish this drink and figure it out later. Alone.

“S-sorry.” The guy slid off the stool, put some cash on the bar, and slunk away.

“You know how much of a dick you are?” The bartender’s voice was ominous.

“Is that a real question?”

The bartender shook his head and went back to wiping down the counter.

“Just give me the rest of the bottle and we won’t have to bother each other.”

“Bar’s closed. Pay up and go.”

Jake looked at his watch. “Three hours till closing.”

“Bar’s closed to you.”

“What the fuck’s up your ass? Nothin’?” Jake laughed.

“You didn’t have to treat Bill like that. He’s just….”

“Just what?”

“He’s been steeling up his courage to talk to you for two days.”

“No pain, no gain.”

“He’s shy, harmless.”

“I don’t like talking about combat. And I don’t need any heroworshiping daddy’s boys following me around.”

“His dad’s dead. Got killed back near Mosul. Shot down picking up a Ranger platoon. And he was a buddy of mine from high school.”

Jake stared into his glass and felt dizzy, his buzz deflating to a dull drunkenness. There was one good sip left, but he was done. He put the glass onto the bar and pulled out his wallet. “Really?”

“Yeah. I’m sure Bill would love to ask his dad. Too bad he can’t. Poor kid’s too starstruck to realize what a dick you are. Planning to join up, and he wanted to ask you about Marine Corps pilot training. He hasn’t learned it takes more than a big medal and your picture with the president to be a hero.”

Jake pulled out enough cash to cover his tab, then another twenty. “I didn’t handle that very well.”

“No, you fucking didn’t.”

“I should apologize.”

“I don’t think he deserves to endure another chat with you.” The bartender glowered. He picked up the cash, counted it, and left Jake’s tip sitting on the bar when he turned to put the rest of the money into the cash register.

“You don’t want a tip?”

“I don’t want you thinking you can buy yourself some bad behavior, then go home and feel good about yourself.” He slammed the cash register shut and moved to the next customer, grabbed a bottle, and poured. “On the house.”

Jake stared, more than a little queasy. He stood, his knees sturdy beneath his weight. He wished he was drunker so he could go back to his room and pass out.

Back in his hotel room, Jake lay staring at the ceiling, watching a spider floating in a cobweb fluttering in the light breeze coming through the window. If he concentrated, he could hear waves crashing against the sand.

Miami, especially South Beach, could be a nice place for a visit, or it could offer any vice a man could want. But at the end of the day, the end of the week, the end of the trip, Jake would still be Jake, and a week of leave wouldn’t have smoothed away the bumps in his life.

A chirp from the nightstand caught his attention, and he gave up on the spider as his cell phone flashed to get his attention.

Only two people would be calling him right now. His CO, calling him back to duty for some emergency Jake didn’t want to know about, or… the other caller, whom Jake didn’t want to speak to in this state. Too drunk to be careful, but not drunk enough to pass out in peace.

When the flashing and noise stopped, he glanced at the phone, noticing the text message contained a photo attachment. He opened the image and smiled at the goofy grin on the face of his twelve-year-old neighbor, Toby, one arm around Daisy, Jake’s dog. She was smiling too. Toby took good care of her when Jake was out of town on duty or on leave.

“My pretty lady,” Jake mumbled and felt their smiles reaching across the distance to brighten his dark mood.

Missing most of an ear and a foot—a story he’d rather not know— Daisy was the only thing that kept him getting up every day. On late nights and early mornings, Jake wondered whether he’d rescued Daisy or whether it had been the other way around. Some days he worried even Daisy would decide he wasn’t worth the effort.

The bartender’s words echoed in his head, drowning out the waves crashing outside his window.

“I don’t want you thinking you can buy yourself some bad behavior, then go home and feel good about yourself.”

He’d never feel good about himself, no matter how much money he left on the bar.

 


JAKE ARRIVED home from his week of leave in Miami and tossed his duffel onto the couch. His house was stuffy and quiet. Too quiet. No click-clacking of nails across the kitchen floor and into the hallway to greet him. He needed some unconditional love right about now. He hadn’t realized how much he’d missed Daisy’s complete acceptance. She was still across the street with Toby Miller.

He glanced at his watch. Just past ten. Was it too late to pick Daisy up? Toby was twelve, but his mother would still be awake. What was bedtime for a twelve-year-old? At that age, Jake was still awake, even if his parents thought he should be asleep. He’d bring a flashlight to bed and read under the covers.

He glanced at the door, then back toward the silent kitchen. Did he have beer in there? Maybe he’d go buy a six-pack. Two six-packs. He didn’t relish another night alone, even in his own bed.

He had his hand on the doorknob when the cell phone in his jacket buzzed.

“Woodley,” he said without looking at the caller ID. He was used to being summoned at a moment’s notice.

“Jake, I saw your lights on. Welcome back.” Jenna Miller sounded cheerful as usual. She always had a smile in her voice.

“Thanks. I got in about five minutes ago.”

“Mom, lemme talk to him!” Toby came through loud and clear. “Jake! How was your trip? Did you do anything fun? I can’t wait to hear all about it! Do you want me to bring Daisy over?” Finally Toby paused for air. He’d make a first-class scuba diver someday with that kind of breath control.

Jake chuckled. “Yeah, sounds great, if it’s okay with your mom.”

“Sure. You can show me your photos!”

Jenna came back on the line. “He’ll be over in a minute, but feel free to kick him out after ten minutes. If he’s not home in fifteen, I’ll come rescue you.”

“He’s fine, Jenna. Thanks for—” The doorbell rang. “I’ll talk to you later or tomorrow.”

Jake opened the door, and seventy pounds of retriever flung herself and her one front paw against his chest. When he’d hugged her and got her back on the floor, she circled him, then poked her nose squarely into his balls.

“Hey, girl. I didn’t cheat on you with any other dogs.” And only two guys.

“Hey, Jake.” Toby stood in the hall while the dog greetings were taking place. He gave Jake a hug. It wasn’t as long as a mom hug, but longer than a guy hug should be. He’d learn.

“Toby, I think you spoiled her. She looks too happy.”

“She missed you.”

“I missed her too.” He knelt down to ruffle Daisy’s fur and pull her in for another hug. She wagged her rear half so wildly Jake could barely hold on to her. “Daisy, did you really miss me?”

She butted his chin with her head, and her cold, wet nose went for his crotch again. Nothing like a welcome home from a dog.

“Let me put out her water and food bowls,” Jake said, and Toby followed along behind him.

“So, what did you do on your trip?”

“Some diving, fishing, and swimming. A lot of nothing.” He wouldn’t mention the drinking and the fucking he’d done in between the other activities. Too much of the former meant he hadn’t gotten much of the latter. He focused on filling the water bowl and placing it on the floor, purposely avoiding Toby’s insightful gaze.

Over the past year and half, their relationship had grown, much to Jake’s surprise. Until he’d met Toby, he’d been uncomfortable and incompetent with his sister’s two kids. Now, hanging with Toby was a pleasure, and his niece and nephew said he’d become a pretty cool uncle.

“Did you meet any nice guys, Jake?”

“Toby!” Jenna came through from the hallway. “You know better than to ask questions like that!” To Jake: “I’m sorry. You left the front door wide open.”

“Thanks. I got distracted.”

Jenna gave Toby a loving sneer. “I’m not surprised. Toby, why don’t you head home and let Jake get to sleep.”

“Okay,” Toby said, drawing the word out to seven syllables as if hoping his mother would change her mind before he finished saying it. He put his head down and pushed through the swinging door into the hallway.

“I need to pay him, Jenna.” Jake went for the wallet in his back pocket.

“Tomorrow’s fine. He can’t spend it tonight.”

“Internet….”

“True.” She grinned and looked at him. “You look good, Jake. Nice and tan.” She took a few steps closer and peered at him again. “Well, you might need to catch up on your sleep. Busy week?”

He shrugged and avoided her gaze. “Nothing I’d tell you or Toby about.”

“Yeah. I hope not.” She chuckled and sat on one of the chairs and scratched Daisy’s head.

Jake leaned against the counter. “Don’t worry. I’m not in the habit of oversharing. Especially about sex or drinking.”

“Tell me about it. You let me know if he gets too nosy. I think he’s hitting that age where he wants to talk about those things.”

“Do you want me to—” He didn’t want to finish the thought. Didn’t kids learn enough online that they didn’t need the birds-and-bees discussion anymore? Had his father had the talk with him before he was Toby’s age? He could barely remember being twenty-two, much less twelve.

She shook her head vehemently. “No. No way.”

“Sorry, I guess you don’t want him hearing the gay version. I think I can do the straight version. Can’t answer too many questions, though.”

“No, it’s not that at all. He sees you as a role model. I think he wants to be gay, so he’ll be more like you.”

A role model to a twelve-year-old? Jake was touched but a little worried at the responsibility. “What makes you say that?”

“He asks questions about whether he’s supposed to like girls or want to kiss them. Hell, I don’t know what to say.”

“Didn’t read the parenting manual?”

“If only. Let me know if he asks anything too personal. I’ve tried to answer truthfully, but not if he asks about me or his dad.”

“I can do that, if you like.”

“Only if you’re comfortable.” She fell silent, and the lone sounds in the room were the occasional thump of Daisy’s tail on the floor and the loud ticking of the clock on the wall. “Well, I better take my own advice and leave you alone to relax and sleep. You due back on Monday?”

“Yeah. I’m looking forward to it. Give me something to do instead of keeping my own company.”

“So, no hot guys on the trip who you might see again?” She stood up. “Sorry, that wasn’t fair. But I can keep hoping you’ll find someone….” She let the thought fade away, but Jake knew she wanted someone to keep him from self-destructing.

“You just want someone else to help with the plumbing and cleaning out the gutters.”

She shrugged and walked up to Jake to plant a sisterly kiss on his cheek. “Come for dinner tomorrow. It’ll motivate me to do more than microwave or order out.”

“Sounds good.”

Once she left, Jake settled on the couch with the one bottle of beer he found in the nearly empty fridge. Daisy hopped up and sat next to him as he flipped through three hundred channels of crap. He sucked down the contents of the bottle and wished he’d gone to buy more before he got comfortable. He stood up, and Daisy’s gaze followed as he walked over to the high cabinet over the bookshelf on one side of the room. He kept the strong stuff in here. He popped open the door and pulled out a half-empty bottle of tequila. He unscrewed the cap and took a gulp directly from the bottle, enjoying the burn as it slid down his throat. He started toward the couch.

Daisy raised her head and stared at him. She looked disappointed.

“Hey, I’m old enough to make my own decisions.”

Daisy put her chin back down on the couch, but her eyes bored into Jake’s, and he felt the weight of her disapproval. He couldn’t take it. He took another good belt, then put the bottle away in the cabinet. When he turned back toward the couch, Daisy thumped her tail and made a sound he interpreted as approval.

“Fine. You win. This time.”

 


ON SUNDAY he woke at five, grumbling at the alarm clock. He allowed himself one snooze, then a wank before he pulled himself out of bed. How easy it was to get out of practice getting up at the asscrack of dawn. But it was a good thing he did this trial run instead of hoping he could manage on Monday.
This morning October more than made her presence known. He pulled on lightweight running tights and a long-sleeved shirt and wrapped Daisy’s leash around his hand. Their breath frosted the air, and the chill prickled the hairs in his nose when he inhaled. Daisy let out a snort but looked more awake than Jake felt. Despite her missing front paw, she had excellent balance and could move surprisingly easily and quickly.Speaking of runs, he needed to get serious with his fitness. He’d missed more days of PT than he’d managed while he was on leave. Contrary to what civilians thought, being on leave did not mean he could sit back and be a lazy slob, no matter how hard he’d tried. He’d be in really sorry shape right now if he hadn’t tried to get a run in at least every other day.

“Yeah, I’d like to crawl back in bed too. But I can see you slacked off while I was away. Yes, that kibble has gone right to your hips.”

She wagged her tail, responding to his cheerful tone and not the critical words. He laughed and moved off at a brisk walk to get them both loosened up before he got serious. The high school was two blocks away, and he had the track to himself at this time of day.

They managed four miles without too much grumbling. He missed the firm sands of South Beach. The frozen asphalt wasn’t good for his knees, but it beat the concrete sidewalks. He could work out at the base fitness center, but he preferred to have the dark mornings to himself. Usually. Today his head was too full of conflicting thoughts to enjoy the sheer physical exertion of his usual routine. He went easy—for Daisy’s sake, he told himself—and didn’t do his usual six miles.

Heat steamed off Daisy’s coat and Jake’s chest as they made a last slow lap to cool down. His throat hurt from sucking in cold air, and the lactic acid made his muscles burn. The familiar pain felt good. How many miles would it take to get all those mojitos out of his system? More than he could manage today.

His mouth watered at the thought of mojitos. Or was it simply the rum that piqued his interest?

Rum, probably. He thought of the bottle of tequila. Six a.m. was probably too early to start doing tequila shots. He hated that he’d qualified it with “probably.” Who the hell would know? He glanced down, and the movement made Daisy look up at him, tail wagging.

“Okay. I’ll wait at least until noon. Does that meet with your approval?”

“Mornin’, Jake.” Coach Dobson was directing two skinny, pimply students setting up equipment on the field for early-morning football practice. He’d have the boys finished in time to get to church or he’d never be allowed to work them on the weekend. Members of the team were filing into the

locker room. “Been somewhere exciting with the president?”

“Not this time. Went down to Miami for a week.”

“Nice work if you can get it.” He waved and blew a whistle that must have shattered his eardrums years ago. Jake shouted a good-bye and led Daisy home.

Inside, he pulled warm towels out of the dryer. He used one to dry and warm Daisy, then the other when he got out of the shower. He yanked on a blue-and-green striped rugby shirt, a pair of USMC sweats, and the thickest socks he had.

Settling onto the couch, Jake started on the overweight Sunday New York Times as he cradled a mug of strong black coffee. He had the whole day to kill before dinner with Jenna and Toby.

He looked at Daisy and she looked at him. From across the room, the liquor cabinet beckoned.

It was going to be a long day.


 

DINNER WAS a pleasant interlude, but once Jake was home again, he gave in to the siren call of Don Julio. He knocked back a couple of quick shots, and the noise in his head subsided. The voices he tried to muffle weren’t the kind telling him to do crazy things. They were the voices of men he’d never see or speak to again. When he was alone at night, he heard them particularly clearly.

It was a bright, clear night. He could see his breath as he crossed the space between kitchen and garage, but he didn’t bother to zip his leather jacket. He needed the cold. He stepped into the garage and pressed the button for the opener and the light. His Harley Sportster gleamed under the dim bulbs. Nice night for a ride.

He glanced at the helmet hanging near the door, then got on the bike without it. He kicked the stand back and started the engine, which was too loud in the enclosed space even with the door open. But she sounded good. He opened the throttle a little and rode down the driveway, remembering to shut the garage door. Then he gunned it and headed for back roads usually deserted this time of night.

His buzz cut did nothing to protect his head or ears from the chill as he sped up once he was away from traffic and bright streetlights. The tequila kicked in, and he felt a little glow. He increased velocity.

He hit seventy, then eighty. He opened the throttle still more, needing the speed, needing the acceleration.

Faster and faster, pushing himself and the machine to their limits, as if he could recreate the moment that changed his life forever. The moment when beautiful metal and glass became a twisted wreck awash in jet fuel and blood. He heard the impact, felt it, smelled the carnage around him as if it were yesterday.

Ninety, one hundred, one oh five. Then he eased the throttle back.

Not because he was afraid to go faster or afraid to look death in the eye. Not because he wasn’t ready to end it all. He was.

But he slowed and pulled the motorcycle to a stop because though she had Toby, Jake didn’t want to let Daisy down. Didn’t want to put her through another round of confusion and loss and abandonment the way her previous owner had.

He pulled his spare helmet out of the equipment box and fastened it under his chin. He headed home close enough to the speed limit. When he turned into the driveway, he spotted Daisy watching him from the living room window, eyes two glowing saucers in the headlights.

Daisy needed him to live, even if he didn’t care one way or the other. For another day, Daisy would be enough.

 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

ALTHOUGH BEAU was back on the White House guest list for the party, the look on Mike Beaumont’s face didn’t immediately fade from his memory. He went through the motions writing his columns for a few days, licking his wounds and cursing his situation.

Laney was away for a week covering a gourmet cruise, and Beau found his spirits flagging again. One morning when he ran into Grizzly Beaumont in the Daily lobby, the guy looked right though him, and Beau realized he couldn’t let the situation fester.

He was as good a reporter as Beaumont, or he had been once upon a time.

Beau actually enjoyed the fashion beat, and he hated how Beaumont had taken the pleasure away.

“I’ll show him,” Beau muttered to himself as he stood in front of his closet the next morning, trying to choose something to wear. “I’ll show him,” he repeated, as if that would leave Mike Beaumont quaking in his mucklucks.

The way to show Mike was to write something he would approve of.

And a new project was born: Beau would find a hard-news story to research and write and offer it to Mike’s boss, the editor of the news desk. If he could write one, he could write a dozen, and maybe he’d get an offer to move downstairs.

The idea resonated for the thirty minutes it took Beau to get to the office, and then it fizzled out again as he told himself he had too much work to do to go chasing after a story he hadn’t been assigned. But by midafternoon Beau had turned in his columns for the week and had plenty of free time and no more excuses.

So he grabbed his laptop and headed around the corner to Café Agatha, his favorite place to write. He got an extra-large latte and settled into a booth, ready to set the newspaper world on fire again.

But it wasn’t like riding a bike. He was out of practice brainstorming ideas. He used to write a lot about education policy, so he read up on some of the recent issues in education.

Common core and student loan debt were among the big issues, but education hadn’t been sexy a couple of years ago, and it still wasn’t sexy. He had to write something that would capture headlines, and education wasn’t going to fit the bill—unless he could uncover a scandal.

He didn’t have enough connections anymore to find a juicy education topic the local reporters hadn’t already done to death.

The best scandals were about sex or money, or both. He didn’t have much of either, Beau mused as he finished his second latte. He’d soon be bouncing off the walls, so he switched to herbal tea.

There had to be something good brewing over in the House or Senate.

Beau pulled up the schedule of Senate committee hearings, hoping something would jump out at him.

Closed hearings abounded, mainly in the Armed Services and Intelligence Select committees. Probably plenty of good ideas floating around in those meetings if he had the connections to attend, but it would take serious research to dig up even a tiny gold nugget at one of the open hearings.

For a start, he could spend some time in the Hart Senate Office Building, where the meetings were held, see who some of the personalities on the intelligence committee were, then follow them to see who they met with, try to eavesdrop in the hallway, frequent the bars their staff members liked to visit.

By the end of the week, his mood had markedly improved.
The next afternoon he attended an open committee hearing, then stuck around listening as the staff members collected papers and notes after the senators left. For the next several days, between fashion assignments, Beau enjoyed strolling the halls of power, loitering near the closed hearings and collecting scraps of information.

 


“DID YOU meet a new guy while I was away?” Laney asked over sushi in the latest addition to Alexandria’s restaurant scene. The paint had barely dried, but Laney loved being the first to discover the next hotspot.

“No.”

“You’re kind of glowing. I haven’t seen you in this good a mood for a long time.”

Beau shrugged and stuffed a piece of saba into his mouth, eyes watering. He’d overdone the wasabi.

“Well, whatever you did or ate, I want to know the secret.” “Tell me more about the cruise.” Beau slurped warm sake.

“Now I know you’re hiding something. You hate to hear me go on about food.”

“I’m practicing mindfulness.”

“By minding my business? How is that mindfulness?”

Beau didn’t have a clue. It had sounded like a better excuse in his head. He didn’t want to let on to Laney what he was doing, in case he failed. She would be supportive no matter what, but he wanted to do this project on his own.

“Then what is mindfulness?” He let Laney lecture him rather than reveal what he was really thinking about.

 

 

 

Chapter 4

 

MONDAY MORNING Jake arrived at Marine Corps Base Quantico with plenty of time to report to the morning meeting in HMX-1. The Marine helicopter squadron was best known for operating the sleek green-and-white helicopters that landed on the South Lawn of the White House. They whisked the president, the first family, and other world leaders away. While everyone recognized Marine One, only the aircraft actually flying the president used that call sign, a fact unknown to the majority of Americans and to the throng of cheering citizens clustered behind the White House waving American flags and presenting an image of support.

Jake greeted fellow pilots and other members of the squadron, some of whom asked about his trip to Miami. He followed them into the long, narrow meeting room where the daily “All Officers Meeting” or AOM was held for the squadron’s thirty pilots.

Colonel    Lewis,     the    squadron’s    commanding    officer,    strode authoritatively toward the front of the room and commenced the meeting. He assigned a variety of tasks to his squadron, from flying the president—known as POTUS—on a variety of upcoming trips to ferrying other members of the administration around DC and the rest of the country.

Jake was usually included in the POTUS lifts, so when he didn’t receive any orders for the next several, he tried to keep his frustration from showing in his expression. After the CO dismissed the squadron, he caught up to Jake in the hallway.

“Welcome back, Captain Woodley. Come and have a word with me

after the morning training.”

“Yes, sir.”

For the next two hours, Jake copiloted on a training flight for another officer. They were flying the CH-53, which was the support helo for the big airlifts. At least one of these went on every POTUS lift, to ferry equipment and the ubiquitous press corps. Flying support aircraft was one of many duties pilots performed while working toward their qualification as presidential pilots. Some would never earn that coveted qualification, but Jake was on the fast track due to his skill and commendations.

Today’s training session was uneventful. As they returned to the

Cage—the squadron’s cavernous hangar, where even the floor was shinier than a new car—Jake spotted another pair of pilots heading out in a Sikorsky White Hawk, a sleek, responsive aircraft that handled like a Ferrari compared to the pickup truck feel of the CH-53.

He longed for more training in the White Hawk, or the stately Sea

King, the signature green-and-white aircraft most Americans recognized as Marine One from those clips on the nightly news. Jake had recently qualified as a presidential copilot and had flown the president twice. That made it particularly galling that he hadn’t been assigned any upcoming POTUS lifts.

Back inside the hangar, Jake headed to the CO’s office, saluted, then shut the door as directed by the colonel.

“Have a seat, Jake.” The colonel stared at him a moment before continuing, and his use of Jake’s first name meant this discussion was more personal than professional. The possibilities caused Jake’s stomach to tighten uncomfortably. “I know you were expecting to get put on the next POTUS lift, but I’ve got another assignment for you.”

The colonel had been a constant support and mentor since Jake joined the squadron, and while he wasn’t the sort to waste time or breath on small talk, Jake hadn’t expected him to cut to the chase so quickly. He was about to ask why, then closed his mouth.

“I hope you got whatever it was out of your system while you were away. You’re a top pilot, but your attitude needs serious work before you can move up to the assignments you should be flying.” The colonel leaned back in his chair and regarded Jake for a moment before continuing. “After the missions you flew in Afghanistan, the work of this squadron is going to seem tame. But it requires the same full commitment from you, especially if you want to get qualified to pilot the Sea King with the president on board. You deserve that. You’ve earned that privilege with your skill and your sacrifice in combat, but it takes more to advance here.”

None of this was news to Jake. What was news was how well the colonel read his mind. He was bored with the easy missions he’d been assigned. He needed a challenge.

“I’ve been more… lenient… with you than usual because I understand how difficult the transition has been for you. But I’ve seen your behavior deteriorate rather than improve. I know you give your all on duty, but this squadron can’t afford to be as lax regarding off-duty, uh, indulgences, as combat units. That’s all I’ll say on the topic. You know how to proceed. If you aren’t up to the particular challenges and rewards of HMX-1, there are dozens of pilots waiting to take your spot.”

Jake’s stomach knotted. The colonel wouldn’t say it in so many words, but he was telling Jake to get his drinking under control. In some units, the CO would probably suggest counseling, but in HMX-1 appearances were critical, leaving much unsaid.

“I understand, sir, and—”

“Don’t make empty promises. Just do it.” “Yes, sir.” Jake stood up.

“You’re not dismissed yet.” He opened a drawer and pulled out an envelope, which he handed to Jake.

Jake took the envelope, spotting the presidential seal embossed on the flap. Inside he discovered an invitation to a dinner at the White House the following Friday.

“The president wants to thank you for doing your job so well.” The colonel’s sneer increased in intensity. “His words, not mine. He likes you.”

“I don’t think that’s the kind of event for me.” Jake thrust the envelope back, but the colonel held up a palm.

“That’s another order. You will go to the party, and you will represent the USMC and this squadron.”

“Yes, sir.” Jake nodded and withdrew his hand along with the creamcolored envelope.

“I’ll be there too, as will Mrs. Lewis. She’s looking forward to seeing you. Now you’re dismissed. And get a good night’s sleep. I’ve decided to slot you on the veep lift to Florida. Captain Alvarez will be taking another assignment.”

“Thank you, sir.” Jake stood, saluted, and left, more confused and conflicted than when he stepped off the bird an hour earlier. On the one hand, he would be making more flights, while on the other, the colonel seemed to expect Jake to do things he hadn’t anticipated would be part of his duties.

He might be the only person who turned his nose up at an invitation to a party at the White House.

Well, at least he didn’t have to agonize over what to wear or how to fix his hair. The Corps made those decisions for him too.

God, he wanted—deserved—a drink, but when he got home, he went for a mind-clearing run with Daisy instead. It didn’t stop him from thinking about spending some quality time with his secret boyfriend, Don Julio.

 


THE FOLLOWING day he copiloted for a formation training exercise with Major Landau piloting. Also taking part in this exercise was a new member of the squadron, Rob Yangley, a captain who had transferred in from the flight school at Pensacola.

“Captain Yangley, you’ll work with Woodley in the simulator the rest of the week. We’ll schedule additional flight training sessions once you’re more familiar with the equipment and the local routes.”

“Thank you, Major. Captain Woodley.”

“Just Jake.”

“Rob.”

After they squared away the aircraft, Rob and Jake sat in the pilot’s mess sipping coffee. “So, you on the president’s flight crew?” Yangley wore the typical awed expression of new pilots for whom the glamor of ferrying the president around seemed almost out of reach.

“Sometimes. I haven’t actually piloted him yet, but I’ve copiloted a few times from the South Lawn to Air Force One at Andrews. I usually fly one of the decoy aircraft or the CH-53s carrying press. But I’m training for top qualification in between the other missions. As long as I get to fly, I don’t care who I’m carrying.” While that was true, Jake still felt slighted when he didn’t get the plum missions.

“How long you been in this squadron?”

“Eighteen months.”

“And you’ve never piloted Marine One?” Jake shook his head.

“Do I have to wait for someone to die or something?”

“Something.” Jake wasn’t in a chatty mood. Yangley should have learned in his initial HMX-1 training that it took two to three years to qualify to fly the president. Jake’s extensive experience and aptitude put him about six months ahead of the usual schedule.

“So what have you been doing? You’d think they’d put a big hero like you into the big leagues much sooner.”

Jake ignored the editorial. “These Sea Kings and White Hawks are unlike anything you flew in Iraq or Afghanistan. They’re really fucking heavy, which throws everything off, and you’ll have to start almost from scratch until piloting them is second nature. You’ll see once you get in the simulator. Hovering in the Sea King takes more concentration than you’ll believe till you try. It’s not easy to land on a dime and you do have to land the fucking things. Not like in combat.”

“So the president isn’t gonna fast rope down onto the South Lawn?”

Jake laughed. “I’d like to see that.”

“This one might go for it if you suggested the idea.”

President Bergen had been in an airborne unit in the Army and served during Desert Storm. It was one reason he held the respect of most of the military personnel who served under him.

Yangley sipped coffee. “I’m still kind of pinching myself over being selected for this unit. I applied a couple of years ago, and my transfer came through only last month. Beats the fuck out of training newbies on the baby helos.”

“Now you know how I feel.” Jake threw him a wide smile. Maybe the new guy would be okay.

The afternoon flew by, and one of the other pilots suggested taking Yangley out for beers. Six of them convened at the Alehouse near Woodbridge. They shared some jokes and did some male bonding, but Jake wasn’t ready to go when the others started saying their good-nights.

“I’m gonna finish this one.” Jake held up a nearly full glass of beer.

“You’re not driving, right?” Yangley asked.

“Nope. Gonna cab it. Don’t worry.” Jake turned to the bartender.

“Some Patrón Silver, for a nightcap.”

He ended up finishing the bottle.

Jake could barely get the key in the lock when the cab dropped him off. Daisy scratched at the door as he squinted and jabbed the key repeatedly at the surprisingly tiny hole until he made contact. “I’m home, honey.”

He had to get onto his knees and slowly put the key in before he managed to connect key to lock. He fell onto the hallway floor. The last thing he remembered was Daisy licking his face.


HE WAS still on the floor when he woke up. It was already light out, which he could see because the front door was still open.

“Fuck,” he said when he was conscious enough to realize he’d spent the night facedown in his hallway. He didn’t remember leaving the bar. How had he gotten home?

Gradually his brain started filling in the gaps and answering his questions, and he wished it hadn’t. He should have left the house thirty minutes ago. He grabbed a quick shower, gargled with industrial-strength mouthwash, and threw on a clean uniform.

He got to work nearly an hour late. Colonel Lewis came out as soon as he arrived. “In my office,” he practically growled as he shook his thumb in that direction.

Jake saluted and followed the colonel inside while others in the squadron looked on, then watched him close the door.

“I can see your vacation didn’t solve any of the problems we talked about before you took leave. Or after.”

“Sir?”

“Jake,” the colonel began. He was taking the personal approach again. That wasn’t necessarily a good thing. “This can’t go on. I have no choice but to ground you until you can get your shit together. I can’t send you to fly anyone like this, even the press corps.” Normally a jibe at the press corps elicited laughter, but the colonel wasn’t in a joking mood, and Jake reined in his amusement.

“Sir, it’s not like before. We took Langley out last night.”

“Yangley.”

“Who?”

“Captain Yangley. Not Langley.”

Heat rose on his neck, but he kept his face impassive. “Yes, sir. Yangley. But I was fine on Monday, wasn’t I?”

“Jake, if you show up… like this—” He swept a hand toward Jake and exhaled loudly. “—half the time, do you really think that’s acceptable? A day here and there where you’re at a hundred percent is not how this squadron operates.”

“Give me the rest of the week, sir. I’ll show you.”

“Arriving late already knocked you off the roster for the veep lift. In fact, you’re grounded until further notice, and I’m writing you up today. However, in light of your prior record, I won’t put the report into your OMPF for the time being.” A negative report in his Official Military Personnel File would doom Jake’s career. “If you can prove you belong in this squadron, then I’ll shred it. Otherwise, it goes in.” He looked at Jake the way his father had when he’d found out Jake was gay—disappointment blended with concern, but not animosity. Like Dad’s, the colonel’s eyes held a glint of hope. “Go home, call it a sick day, then report directly to me first thing tomorrow. I need to figure out what I can have you do to earn your wings back.”

“Sir?” The severity of his predicament crashed down like a meteor.

“Home, Captain.”

“Yes, sir.” Jake stood and saluted, then left. The guys standing in the hallway pretended they hadn’t been watching the door and waiting, like vultures. Scuttlebutt would spread this story within the hour. But the CO couldn’t be seen allowing Jake to go OFP—on his own fucking program—or risk losing the squadron’s respect. Jake flipped the waiting pilots the bird and walked out the way he’d come ten minutes earlier.

It felt like Monday again.

He caught up on sleep until hunger woke him in the middle of the afternoon. Against his better judgment, he washed down takeout from a nearby Mexican place with Don Julio. He finished off the bottle.

“At least it won’t be tempting me anymore,” he reasoned, but even Daisy didn’t believe him. She curled up near the front window instead of at his feet or trying to climb onto the couch.

He’d started drinking early, so by five the next morning, he was sober as a judge. A judge with a hangover he couldn’t let the colonel notice, not if he wanted to keep this posting. Did he want to keep this posting? It was a question he asked himself several times a week.

Hell yes. But even if he got booted from HMX-1, Jake would take any aviator slot in any squadron. The thought of losing the privilege of flying terrified him more than anything.

“You dodged a bullet, Jake,” Tim Alvarez told him as he poured coffee in the break room before the morning meeting.

He’d run into a brick wall called Colonel Lewis. What could have been worse than that? “Why d’you say that?” Jake stirred in a few packets of sugar. Usually he took it black and unsweetened, but he needed the energy today. He anticipated more impending disaster.

“They did random piss and breath tests on the squadron yesterday. Not two hours after you left. All the pilots and a third of the support staff got tested.”

“Seriously?” Jake sipped coffee and thanked his lucky stars. First time he’d felt grateful to get a dressing down. He’d have been suspended, maybe kicked out of the squadron, if he’d been found with BAC over 0.01 on duty. “Anyone get caught?”

“No one failed the Breathalyzer, but a few maintenance guys and one pilot came up positive for recreational substances. They’re facing discharges.”

“Fuck. Who?”

“That’s enough gossip, ladies,” Lieutenant Colonel Monroe said. “Get to work.” He eyed Jake up and down but didn’t say a word. The lieutenant colonel was second-in-command and the bulldog of the squadron. His scowl was permanent. Apparently if you made a face too long it did stick. Jake couldn’t recall the man smiling more than twice in the past year. To make matters worse, he had the throaty growl of a drill instructor. More than one officer cringed at the memory of their first weeks in OCS when Monroe was on a tear.

Back in Colonel Lewis’s office that afternoon, Jake held his breath as he waited to hear his sentence.

“Jake, I think you’ve gotten enough of a scare into you to change your behavior while you still can.”

“Sir?”

“There’s a point where occasional self-medication turns into addiction. Right now you’re on the side of that line where you make a conscious decision every time you take a drink. That’s why I’m convinced you can avoid what happened yesterday. You know the risks and the consequences. If it happens again, I have no choice but to conclude you’ve crossed the line and you will be transferred out of HMX-1. Your next CO can worry about your future.”

The silence suggested it was Jake’s turn to speak. “Where do I stand now, sir?”

“I won’t be scheduling any simulator time for you in the meantime.”

Jake gulped. If he wasn’t flying lifts, the simulator was the only way to earn additional qualifications. He saw his future imploding. He didn’t trust his voice, so he nodded.

“I’ll find other duties for you. We’ll see how you perform, and then I’ll consider you for more critical lifts, maybe a copilot slot on a POTUS lift if you can prove to me we don’t need to discuss this issue again.”

“No, sir. Thank you.”

“I’m taking a few days’ leave while my wife has some treatments.

While I’m away, Lieutenant Colonel Monroe will be running the squadron.”

“I’m sorry to hear your wife is ill. Please give her my regards.” Mrs. Lewis had some rare form of cancer. She’d been a lovely hostess to the officers in the squadron until recently, when her health took a turn for the worse. “And thank you for the opportunity.”

“I’ll let her know. She’ll appreciate the thought.” The colonel’s frown melted away, but his eyes still held a chilly warning that Jake better not fuck up again.
Later, at home, Jake reflected on the events of the morning. The colonel undoubtedly knew in advance of the previous morning’s drug test. But he’d grounded Jake and sent him home, so Jake hadn’t been required to give a sample. He definitely had dodged a bullet.

He needed to get himself clean again. He didn’t want to lose his job. Being in the HMX-1 Squadron was a plum assignment. Guys would kill for his slot. Guys had, during combat deployments. It was supposed to be a reward for service.

But why did the cushy job ferrying government officials, senators, and visiting dignitaries feel like he’d been given a life sentence? Why would he rather face antiaircraft fire and extract a platoon of grunts than fly the president around?

What the hell was wrong with him?


 

FRIDAY AFTERNOON, while much of the squadron was heading off for a presidential lift to Camp David or the veep lift to Florida, the lieutenant colonel summoned Jake to his office.

“How are you doing, Jake?”

He fidgeted in his seat as the lieutenant colonel’s eagle eyes raked him over. “Fine, sir.”

“You seem to have taken Colonel Lewis’s warning to heart. Or at least you appear to.”

“Yes, sir.” Jake bit his bottom lip.

“Your behavior should be above reproach on duty or off. Your face is well-known to anyone with a television or the Internet, and you never know when someone might photograph you doing something that could embarrass the squadron, the Marine Corps, or the White House. And it would jeopardize this assignment if anyone in the White House thinks you can’t handle the work or might be under the influence while you’re flying the president or anyone else around.” He paused for a moment and smiled.

“Except the press.”

Jake laughed along with Monroe.

“Do you have a drinking problem, son, or is it something else?” Hoping this was a rhetorical question, Jake remained silent.

“I don’t doubt for a moment you’re one of the best pilots on this squadron. However, you’re not remotely the best Marine. I suspect you’re aware of both facts. Along with the colonel, I’m willing to help you stay here, so I’ll give you a little leeway, but we cannot tolerate a repeat of your behavior earlier this week. I don’t care what you do on your own time out of the public eye, but when you come into this building, when you drive onto this base, you have to be one hundred percent ready to do your duty. We never know when we’ll be called for any part of our mission. That’s no different from Iraq or Afghanistan. We’re not flying into combat, but we have to protect our team and our passengers exactly the same way as we would a platoon we set into a combat zone.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I know from experience a pilot who isn’t allowed to fly is bound to get himself into more trouble. No one wants to see that happen to you. I’ve got a special assignment for you. It’s scheduled for this weekend. Tonight, actually. You and Alvarez.”

“Tonight?” This was highly unusual. A momentary chill set into Jake’s bones, but he brushed it off. He wanted to fly. He was ready to fly. He needed to fly.

“Do you have a date, a hair appointment, or something more important than this mission?”

“No, sir.”

“Catch a couple of hours of rack time here, then you’ll pick up your passengers and take them here.” He opened a folder and slid a flight plan and map out of it. The familiar Top Secret watermark slanted across each page, along with a heading at the top: Top Secret Appaloosa. “Who are we flying?”

The lieutenant colonel pressed his lips together for a moment. “I don’t know. It’s not important, is it?”

“No, sir.”

Monroe handed the folder to Jake. “Familiarize yourself with the details while I get Alvarez, then we’ll go over the plans together here.”

Jake flipped the folder open as the lieutenant colonel walked out of the office and shut the door behind him.

 


FOUR HOURS later Jake and Alvarez and an enlisted crew chief settled into their seats in one of the modified Hueys and took off, with Jake piloting. He and Alvarez would swap places on the next leg of the flight. They picked up their passengers, two men who stayed in the shadows so Jake never saw their faces. One of them wore a hat the entire flight. Another had a beard, but that was all Jake could discern. Alvarez sat in the copilot’s seat and shrugged when Jake asked a silent question.

Jake put the details out of his mind as he and Alvarez performed the preflight check of the aircraft.

“When are we leaving?” one of the men asked.

“After we finish the checklist,” Jake responded. “Sir.”

“You’ve only been here ten minutes.”

“Regulations, sir, for your safety.” Alvarez responded and threw Jake a commiserating glance.

That shut the guy up.

Once the preflight check was complete, Alvarez told the tower they were taking off. Jake increased the rotor speed and slowly pulled up on the collective, changing the pitch of the blades until the aircraft left the ground. He made tiny adjustments with the pedals to keep the helo straight as they rose with barely a shudder. Once they’d cleared the ground, Jake accelerated their climb and banked left toward their destination.

He loved flying, loved the responsiveness of this machine. He’d flown Hueys and Black Hawks in combat, and maneuvering was second nature, as simple as driving a car. That let him enjoy the flight as they moved low enough to see cars speeding along dark country roads below, with the occasional brightly lit gas station or all-night shop.

The headphones cancelled any cockpit noise beyond the comforting thrum of the rotor blades, including the conversation between their passengers. Helmet mics let Jake and Tim communicate, but by mutual consent, they kept unnecessary conversation to a minimum.

They flew to a small airfield in northern Maryland, dropped the men off, and slept in the bird. In the wee hours of the night, still in pitch darkness, they deposited their passengers at the pickup spot, then returned the Huey to Quantico.

To Jake’s surprise, Monroe was there when they landed. He watched them perform the postflight check-in, and Jake couldn’t help feeling the grim look on the lieutenant colonel’s face was some sort of warning. The lieutenant colonel’s all-seeing gaze reminded Jake of the billboard in The Great Gatsby.

Those wire-rimmed spectacles and intense eyes scared the crap out of him.

As much as Jake wanted to ask Alvarez about this strange middle-ofthe-night assignment, he’d wait until they were off the base and out of the lieutenant colonel’s presence.

When Jake got home early Saturday afternoon, he downed a few shots of tequila and climbed into bed and fell into exhausted sleep before he had a chance to go over the events of the past twenty-four hours.

He was starving when he awoke, made scrambled eggs, and wolfed them down. Now he was ready to phone Alvarez.

“Tim, you have any idea what the hell we did last night?”

“Nope. And I don’t care.”

“You ever done one of those before?”

“Twice.”
“For Appaloosa?”

“Jake….” Tim’s tone held a warning. Naming a classified mission on unencrypted comms was prohibited.

“Same guys, same places?” Jake asked.

“I don’t know.”

Jake let out a sigh. Something in Tim’s tone told Jake it wasn’t a good idea to ask questions.

“Is this a regular thing? What about the other pilots?” “I had the same copilot both times.” He didn’t say who.

“But it was fucking weird.”

“What’s weird about it?”

“Hello, secrecy? The way we had to return all the paperwork. The way we had only coordinates and maps with no place names?”

“Did you ask why you flew the missions you were assigned back in Afghanistan?”

“No.”

“This is also a mission. If the squadron commander tells us to, we fly.

Who, when, where he tells us. That’s good enough for me.”

“You’re right. We just follow the orders.” Jake said good-bye and stared at the wall in his kitchen for a while after he hung up. He didn’t agree with Tim. For all he knew, he’d just flown Osama bin Laden’s little brother around Maryland. He didn’t like being in the dark like that.

But he loved flying. He hoped he wouldn’t have to choose.

 

 

NEAR THE end of the following week, Jake was assigned another lastminute flight for Appaloosa. This time Major Jack Plummer was piloting, with Jake as copilot. They picked up three passengers in Virginia and dropped them off in Maryland before returning to Quantico. Another team would retrieve the passengers the following day. This time Jake recognized one of the men as a Pentagon big shot, Army General Graham.

As with the first secret flight, Lieutenant Colonel Monroe was in the hangar when they arrived and collected their flight plans and paperwork without a word except to dismiss them.

“Do you have a moment, sir?” Jake asked and Monroe led him into the office.

“What’s on your mind, Woodley?”

Use of his surname put Jake on guard, but he went ahead anyway. Caution had never been his strong suit. “I’m just wondering who we’re flying and why the flights have a code word.” Until Appaloosa, Jake hadn’t been assigned any noncombat flights with code words. Maybe this was common practice and he simply hadn’t been assigned one until now.

Lieutenant Colonel Monroe sat back in his executive armchair and steepled his hands with his fingertips under his chin. “I don’t know, Captain. I just pass the assignments to my pilots. I don’t ask my CO why we’re doing these flights. And I don’t recommend you do either.”

“But sir—”

“Wait a moment before you go on.” Monroe leaned forward and opened a drawer. He pulled out another folder and slid it across the desk to Jake.

“Open that.”

Inside, Jake found a disciplinary report with his name at the top and a recommendation of losing his commission. A small earthquake erupted in his gut, and the tremors went all the way to his hands. They shook as he closed the folder. He glanced up at Monroe and slid the folder back across the desk.

“I see we have an understanding. I give orders. You follow them. That’s how the Marine Corps works. It’s how the whole fucking Pentagon works. Men—Marines—who follow orders, who show they can be trusted, get more responsibility and rewards, of which there are many in this squadron. Those who don’t follow orders get to make their own rules—as civilians.” He leaned back in the chair again. “Any questions?”

“No, sir.” Jake blinked and pushed his chair back from the desk.