Wendel “Navy” Sinclair blinked, trying to block a bright light shining from above. It stung his eyes, burning, making them as dry as sand. He tried to lift his hand to shield it so he could focus on his surroundings, but a sharp pain rippled across his shoulder.
He groaned, turning his head to the side.
It wasn’t the sun that beat down on his face. How he wanted to go back to his dream where he was sipping a fruity drink in a plastic cup on a beach somewhere south of the border, staring at a bunch of shirtless men playing volleyball on the beach.
Life didn’t get any better than what went on in his mind when he slept during this drug-induced state the hospital had provided.
The combination of antiseptic and death filled his nostrils. He exhaled, trying to expel the demons.
It never worked.
Every muscle in his body ached. He shifted, wishing he hadn’t as his back twisted in excruciating pain.
No. It felt more like someone had torn his legs from his body as if he were a wishbone on Thanksgiving Day.
And then tried to glue them back together.
“You’re awake,” a familiar voice said. “How are you feeling today?”
“Like I was ejected from a plane and landed in a tree with a faulty parachute.”
The memories flooded his brain like a wave crashing on shore during a summer storm. Every morning for the past two weeks, as soon as he oriented himself to the present, he relived the horrific moments before his world changed forever.
The bullets tearing through his plane.
The first engine cutting out.
Then the second, forcing the plane into the dreaded out-of-control flat spin.
He’d been lucky he’d had the ability to even pull the eject cord.
And then everything had gone black.
For nearly two weeks.
“A sense of humor is a good thing,” Doctor O’Leary said.
“I’m not sure sarcasm is considered humor but whatever.” Navy’s vision adjusted to the brightness of the sterile hospital room. Thanks to his long-time buddy and philanthropist, Casper Walgreen, Navy had himself a nice little private room in Germany with all the bells and whistles that went with being rich, even though he wasn’t.
And he had the best doctors money could buy that the military would allow him to work with.
This was one of those moments when it was nice to have friends in high places, and Navy would find a way to repay Casper if it was the last thing he did.
“I’ve got good news.” O’Leary took his stethoscope from his neck, put it in his ears, and took the round part and placed it on Navy’s chest.
How any doctor could talk to a patient while listening to their heart was beyond Navy. But he went with it.
“Yeah. What’s that?” Navy asked.
“You get to start occupational and physical therapy today.”
“You mean I get to be tortured.”
The doctor tossed his listening apparatus over his shoulder. “Pretty much. And your therapist will tell you that pain is weakness leaving the body, but we both know that’s bullshit. But like I told you yesterday, while your injuries are substantial, and right now your ability to move is limited, you will be walking out of this hospital; I have no doubt.”
“But my career as a Navy fighter pilot is over.” He hadn’t muttered the words himself, though he’d been mulling them over ever since the doctor told him he’d had a twenty-two-hour surgery to remove a piece of his plane that had nearly severed his spinal cord.
It had done enough damage that he currently couldn’t walk, O’Leary told him because he could still feel pain, wiggle his toes, and woke with a partial erection, he had no reason to believe Navy wouldn’t recover his mobility.
However, as of right now, from the waist down, he was fucking useless.
“I never said that.” The doctor lifted the clipboard off the edge of the bed and jotted something before hanging it back up.
“Be honest with me, Doc. What’s the likelihood that I will be back in the air?”
“I have no idea. It all depends on your body and how you recover.”
“Have you seen anyone with my injuries go back to being a fighter pilot? Or active duty in general.”
O’Leary put his hands in his white coat and let out a short breath.
Navy really didn’t need the doctor to say another word. His fate had been sealed. His career was over at twenty-six. He stared at the doctor and pretended to listen intently to his encouraging words.
“You have a long road ahead of you. It could take a good year before you’re even close to being ready to take the physical. But you’re strong. So it’s not impossible.”
“But improbable.” Navy held up his good arm. The one that hadn’t been nearly torn apart. “My father raised me to be pragmatic, and while he always taught me to push the envelope, he made me understand I need to know my limitations.”
“No offense to your father, but we don’t know what those are until we get you into rehab and work your body.” O’Leary tapped his temple. “Half the battle is in the mind. Admitted defeat will kill your progress in therapy.”
“I never said I was going to curl up and wither under a rock and die. Nor did I say I was just going to give up. That isn’t in my DNA. The Navy taught me to have a go-to-shit plan. If I can’t be a fighter pilot, I need to prepare myself for that. You have to understand that since I was four years old, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
“Is that why they call you Navy?”
Navy laughed. “No. My buddies at prep school gave me that nickname my freshman year. It’s all I ever talked about, and they just started calling me that and it stuck. Now, even my family calls me Navy. Beats fucking Wendel.”
“Yeah. That’s certainly not a name that’s a chick magnet if you know what I mean.”
Navy blinked. His current boyfriend, if he could really call Shamus that anymore based on their last few arguments, resented the fact that Navy chose to keep his sexual orientation a secret.
Well, it wasn’t that he kept the fact he was gay as classified information; he just chose not to flaunt it.
At any time.
Not even his family.
And while the military was a lot more forgiving these days, the world hadn’t changed that much, and he’d personally seen what can happen to a gay man in the military when they were outed. He chose not to have those things happen to him. Of course, he was sure some of his friends knew, but no one ever asked, and he never told.
“Nope. It’s not.” Navy swallowed the shame pill. He wasn’t embarrassed by being gay. Not by a long shot. That wasn’t even the point. It was the looks. The odd glances. The weirdness of having to explain who he was when heterosexual men didn’t have to do the same. Whenever anyone asked him if he had a girlfriend and he responded with: No. I have a boyfriend. People always paused, clearing their throat and then said something stupid like: Oh. That’s cool. I have an uncle who’s gay.
Instead of something normal and simple like asking him what his boyfriend’s name was or something.
He told himself he was a private man and that he preferred to keep his love life close to the cuff. Navy told himself a lot of things that were utter bullshit, but this one he knew was partially true. He didn’t kiss and tell. That would be rude. But if he were being totally honest with himself, part of his issue was the way he’d been raised.
“Excuse me.” One of the nurses stuck her head in the door. “There’s a young man here to see you. He said he flew all the way from the States to be at your side.”
Navy wasn’t expecting to see Casper for another week. Then again, knowing Casper, if he was off to some disaster site in this part of the world, he’d make a pit stop to say hello.
“Send him in,” Navy said.
“I’m not finished with your exam.” O’Leary lifted the covers, exposing Navy’s feet.
Let the poking and prodding begin.
“That’s okay. I’m sure it’s my buddy who paid for this privacy and who is going to remind me of that fact for the rest of my life.” Navy stared at the ceiling. It struck him as odd that his legs ached and burned, and yet he barely felt a pinprick at the bottom of his feet. “I felt that one. Pinprick pain level at about a three.”
“That’s progress,” O’Leary said. “Wiggle your toes for me.”
“This shouldn’t take so much brain power.” He focused on his feet, hoping more than his toes moved.
“Excellent. You’re making—”
“Navy? Oh. My. God.” The sound of Shamus’ voice smacked Navy’s gut like a ton of bricks.
“Shamus? What the hell are you doing here?” Navy swallowed the thick lump that formed in his throat. He tried to adjust to a more upright position. A sharp pain shot from the center of his back to his neck. He groaned.
“You thought I would just sit stateside after hearing this news?” Shamus raced to the side of the bed and took Navy’s hand, cradling it between both of his.
“Sorry. That hurts.” Navy quickly shrugged. “You shouldn’t have come.”
Shamus drew his lips together in a tight line, folded his arms across his chest, and glared.
Navy knew that look of disdain well. He’d only been dealing with it on and off for the last two years.
“I couldn’t sit around and do nothing when my…” Shamus tilted his head and arched a brow.
At least he didn’t shout boyfriend.
“Flying across the country when I’ll be shipped home in a couple of weeks seems to be above and beyond the call of duty for a close friend.” Navy gritted his teeth, waiting for one of two things to happen.
Either Shamus was going to storm out, cursing under his breath.
Or he would out Navy as a gay man.
Shamus did neither, which terrified Navy on a different level. For the last two years, he tried to explain to Shamus why it had been so important to him to keep his sexuality to himself, but especially when it came to all things military.
“Well, truth be told, I didn’t fly here just for you,” Shamus said. “I was in Paris with my family when I got word on what happened.”
“That’s right. I forgot about your sister’s wedding.” Fuck. Sometimes Navy could be a self-centered ass. “How is your sister?”
“Fine,” Shamus said with an exasperated sigh.
“Excuse me for a moment,” O’Leary said. “I’ll be back in about ten minutes.”
“I’m not going anywhere, Doc.” Navy fluffed his pillow and did his best to adjust his disposition, but it was hopeless. No matter which way he twisted his body, pain ricocheted across his muscles.
“Why do you do this shit?” Shamus asked, not changing his stance. As a matter of fact, he puffed out his chest even more. “You almost fucking die. I have to find out from a text message from goddamned Casper of all people, and when I do what most people would think is a normal thing for a man in love to do, you act like we’re buddies. And not even fuck buddies.”
“Keep your voice down.” The last thing Navy needed was a knock-down, drag-out fight with a drama queen. Not that he’d classify Shamus as a queen, which was one of the many reasons he’d been attracted to him in the first place. However, Shamus demanded things of Navy that he just wasn’t capable of giving him, and if they had a chance, Shamus needed to figure out how to accept them, or Navy needed to walk.
Navy nearly laughed out loud. Shamus might just do that anyway if Navy never walked again.
“Why? Are you ashamed of me? Of us. Hell, of yourself.”
“I’m not.” God, Navy was tired of having this fucking discussion with every man he became entangled with.
But it especially bothered him with Shamus.
“The military got rid of the don’t ask, don’t tell policy a while ago. You can be loud and proud all you want.”
“No. I can’t.” He lifted his good arm and pinched the bridge of his nose. “If I come out with my crew, I might as well be a dead man walking. You don’t know what it’s like for me.”
“Are you fucking kidding me? I don’t know what it’s like to be a gay man in an intolerant world that pretends they accepts us?”
“Oh, please. You own a goddamned gay bar. You were raised by a single mother who is bisexual.” Navy kept an eye on the tiny little window in the door. He’d have to shut this conversation down when the doctor came back in, and he knew what that meant.
He also knew he should have ended this when he left on his last deployment three months ago. Stringing Shamus along had been selfish on his part, and now that he was, for all intents and purposes, paralyzed, having someone waiting for him to return was pointless.
“Your family didn’t stare at you with blank expressions, wondering where they’d gone wrong when you told them you were gay,” Navy continued, though why he bothered he had no idea. Maybe Shamus would just put him out of his misery. “I, on the other hand, was made to feel as though there was something wrong with me. As if I wasn’t man enough.”
“And you’ve been building up testosterone ever since,” Shamus said under his breath. “As if being macho makes up for finding the same sex attractive.”
“Please, try for once to put yourself in my shoes.”
“I get it. I was picked on and got the shit kicked out of me a couple of times for being gay. There are a shit ton of pricks out there. But I don’t understand why I can’t sit at your bedside and hold your hand and help you through this.”
Navy let out a long breath. “Even if I asked you to stay, which I’m not, I wouldn’t want you to take care of me or cater to my needs, and you know it. I’m not a touchy-feely kind of man. I don’t like public displays of affection. And I sure as hell don’t like my love life out there for the world to judge. Besides, I have to do this on my own.”
“No, you don’t. And if this were one of your team members lying in this bed, and their girlfriend or wife came, you’d think wow, look at the kind of support his family is giving him. But you can’t see past your own homophobic issues to see that.”
“That’s ridiculous.” Navy could taste the bitter lie and the older he got, the more foul it became. “I’m tired of the same old argument. If you can’t respect me and my wishes, then why the hell are you even with me?” Well, Navy had gone and done it now. That was it. He knew he’d hit below the belt and he knew exactly what Shamus would do.
“I don’t have a fucking clue,” Shamus said. “I’m glad you’re alive and I suspect you’ll recover just fine. Have a nice life, Navy.” Shamus turned. He reached for the door but paused and looked over his shoulder. “I feel sorry for you. And not because you’re sitting in that hospital bed. I have faith that you will do what it takes to walk out of here. But you’re a broken man who refuses to accept who he is, and until you do that, you’ll never find real happiness.”