[T]his book blew me away. – The Way She Reads, 5 Stars
Lieutenant Commander Kyle West is one of Earth Fleet’s greatest fighter pilots. Every day, he leads his squadron into battle over Earth’s cities in a seemingly endless war against a vicious alien race, defending his home and his loved ones.
Millions of miles away, the Fleet’s Elite Squadron attacks from another angle, engaging the enemy on its home turf. Casualties are high, and the Squadron needs more of the Fleet’s very best. But joining the Elite is a death sentence — a surety Kyle isn’t willing to face. Until a devastating attack wipes out the family he refused to leave.
Commander Andrei Dezhnyov, an Elite Squadron gunner, isn’t sure what to make of the cocky new American pilot. Kyle is equally uncertain about the snarly Russian, but as they warm up to each other, their tentative alliance becomes a deep bond — one that endangers them both when a daring and disobedient rescue reveals secrets that call into question everything they’ve ever believed about their enemy. Secrets that their superiors would kill to protect.
This book was previously published.
“And what if you don’t make it back next time?”
“Griff.” Kyle leaned against the kitchen counter and bit back a groan. He’d been home for five damned minutes. Hadn’t even had a chance to change out of his flight suit yet. “Are we seriously going to have this argument every—”
“After every time you barely make it home in one fucking piece?” Griff threw up his hands. “Yes! We are!”
Scrubbing over his face, Kyle let go of that groan. Then he shifted his weight and rested his hip against the counter, careful not to display any of the pain in his neck and shoulders, as he looked Griff in the eyes. “Fine. So what do you want me to do? Turn in my wings?”
In an instant, Griff’s anger deflated, and Kyle’s shoulders dropped. They both knew damn well Griff would never ask Kyle to give up his career, not in the midst of an interplanetary war and not after he’d worked so goddamned hard to earn those coveted silver wings. That one simple question effectively backed Griff into a corner every single time.
Kyle pushed off from the counter and moved toward Griff. “I’m sorry. I am. But the danger—it’s part of the job. I can’t . . . I can’t change it.”
“I’m just scared, okay?” Griff’s voice wavered, threatening to crack.
“I know you are. But I . . . This is out of my hands. What can I do?”
“Nothing. I know. I . . .” Griff folded his arms tightly across his chest and avoided Kyle’s eyes. “I just don’t want to lose you.”
“You won’t.” Kyle wrapped his arms around Griff and held him close.
Griff melted against him. His arms loosened, then fell, then returned Kyle’s embrace. “Every time the sirens go off when you’re on duty, I am so damned scared. Between getting Brendan to the shelter and worrying you’ll be shot down, I . . .” He shook his head and looked up at Kyle. “And, Jesus, whenever they say a fighter’s crashed, it’s—”
Kyle silenced him with a gentle kiss. He suppressed a shudder at the thought of his longtime partner and their young son scrambling down to the bunkers when the sirens screamed. What if they didn’t make it? There’d been close calls before. For as much as Griff worried about Kyle’s safety, Kyle woke in cold sweats all the time, scaring himself shitless with nightmares about what could happen to his family and how powerless he was to prevent it. At least he had an ultrafast fighter with state-of-the-art weapons systems, and he flew with one of the best gunners in the Fleet. All Griff and Brendan could do was run.
His shudder almost came to life, but Kyle forced it away. He touched his forehead to Griff’s. “We both know it’s dangerous, but I promise, I’m doing my damnedest to come home to you and Brendan every night.”
“I know you are,” Griff whispered unsteadily. “And there are fucking aliens out there trying their damnedest to make sure you don’t.” He swallowed. “They say the Menarians are getting better. That they’re adapting to the way you guys fight, and they’re always one step ahead of you guys now. They’re fighting better, they’re shooting better, they’re—”
“We’re learning to fight them too.” Kyle smoothed Griff’s hair. “They’ve got a long way to go before they’re good enough to bring me down.”
Griff didn’t laugh. “Even the elite pilots still get shot down.” Sighing, he rubbed the back of his neck. “You’d think the Fleet would leave more of the elite fighters here.”
Kyle shrugged. “They’re fighting the Menarians on their own turf.”
“And what about fighting them here?”
He grinned. “That’s why I’m here.”
Griff still didn’t crack a smile.
Kyle’s heart sank deeper, and his grin faltered. The Fleet had been after him for a while now to go to Epsilon, the station orbiting Menar, but he’d refused every time, and Griff knew it. No matter how much his commanding officer pressured him, he wasn’t going, and yet Griff was still terrified at every turn that Kyle was a heartbeat away from agreeing to go. That was an argument they’d had a few too many times, and he just wasn’t in the mood for it tonight. Just like he wouldn’t be in the mood to listen to the brass trying again tomorrow to get him to go.
“You’re the best we have, West. We put you and Blaine in with the elite, you could turn the tide of the war.”
“We’ve been through this,” Kyle said softly. “I’m not going to Epsilon.”
“Not unless they order you to.”
“It’s strictly voluntary. You know that.”
“For how long?” Griff wriggled out of Kyle’s embrace and slumped against the counter, folding his arms across his chest again. His posture didn’t come across as defensive so much as an attempt to keep himself from shivering. “You said yourself they’re getting desperate for pilots over there.”
“Griff.” Kyle stepped closer and gently grasped Griff’s upper arms. “They’re not going to force anyone to Epsilon. The Elite Squadron’s got enough problems already with morale among the volunteers.” Shaking his head, he added, “You force someone into that? They’re not going to fight worth a damn, and they’ll just get themselves and the rest of their squadron killed.”
Griff shuddered, some color leaving his already-pale face. “Fuck . . .”
“I’m not going.” He squeezed Griff’s arm. “There’s no way in hell I’m leaving you and Brendan behind. No way. I promise.”
“I know you’re not leaving us behind,” Griff said bitterly, “but if they get desperate and make you go, you can’t take us with you.”
Kyle shook his head but didn’t speak. He just pulled Griff into his arms again and stroked his hair silently. They’d been around this block a few dozen times too, and usually at a much higher volume, but he couldn’t think of any other way to drive it through Griff’s skull that he would never volunteer.
What Griff didn’t need to know was that, lately, the Fleet had been piling even more pressure on Kyle and his gunner to join the Elite Squadron. A lot of pressure. Kyle was easily one of the best fighter pilots still on Earth, and Emily had the highest confirmed-kill rate in the entire Fleet.
But time and again, Kyle and Emily agreed that they were more useful here as part of Earth’s defenses. What good was an offensive attack on an enemy planet if there was nothing left to protect? They’d even tried to compromise by volunteering for one of the short-deployment squadrons that tried to intercept Menarians when they entered the solar system, but they weren’t selected. The Fleet was clear—they wanted him and Emily on the Elite Squadron, and that was that.
Griff pulled in a deep breath, the movement drawing Kyle out of his thoughts. He loosened his embrace, and Griff looked up at him. His lips parted as if he was about to speak, but then he seemed to let the thought go and just stood up on his toes to kiss Kyle softly on the mouth. “Just be careful.”
“I’m always careful.”
Griff sighed and lowered himself back to his normal height.
“I’m scared out there too, you know,” Kyle whispered against Griff’s forehead. “But those sons of bitches aren’t taking me away from you and Brendan without one hell of a fight.”
“That’s what scares me.” Griff looked up at him again. “That they’re willing to put up one hell of a fight.”
Kyle started to speak, but the front door opened, and he and Griff both turned their heads.
“Dad!” Brendan dropped his schoolbag and sprinted across the kitchen. He jumped into Kyle’s arms and held on to him so tightly Kyle could barely breathe. “You’re okay!”
“I’m fine, kiddo.” Kyle closed his eyes as he hugged his son. Of course, Brendan had known already that Kyle was all right. Griff never would have sent him to school that morning if they’d still been waiting for word one way or the other. Still, seeing was believing. Squeezing him gently, Kyle whispered again, “I’m fine.”
The boy pulled back and turned to Kyle, eyes wide. God, he was looking more and more like Griff every day—the same blond hair, the same blue eyes. These days, he barely gave a single nod to his mother’s genes.
Brendan swallowed. “The aliens got really close this time.” Just over a year in London and a faint accent was already beginning to sharpen the edges of the boy’s otherwise American words.
“Yeah, they got close.” Kyle smoothed Brendan’s hair. “But they didn’t get us.” He kept it to himself that his fighter craft’s wing had barely stayed together long enough to get him and Emily safely on the ground. Or that the O2 system was badly damaged. Or that his neck and back still twinged every time he moved, thanks to that rough, near-catastrophic landing just before what was left of the wing had snapped off. Brendan didn’t need to know a Menarian’s missile had gotten that close to him, and neither did Griff. They definitely didn’t need to know about the missile that had turned a good friend’s bird into a fireball right in front of Kyle’s windscreen. Kyle could have done without that knowledge himself.
Brendan’s blue eyes, huge and round, locked on Kyle’s. “Do you think they’ll come back?”
Kyle chewed his lip, unable to look at his partner or his son. They wanted both comfort and honesty from him, truth and reassurance wrapped in one neat little package they could keep close by when doubt crept in. But he couldn’t lie. He couldn’t declare that the aliens wouldn’t be back. Maybe they wouldn’t come so damned close next time—five hundred miles from the city had been much too close for Kyle’s comfort—but they would most assuredly be back to Earth before long.
Gentle fingers pressed into the tender muscles of his neck, and he forced himself not to flinch, not to show any signs of physical discomfort that might allude to his partner and son that it was a closer call than either of them realized.
“Kyle?” Griff’s voice was gentle but somehow demanding too, as if to say, Tell him, damn it. Tell me.
Kyle swallowed, then met his son’s eyes. “I wish I could tell you they won’t be back. I really do.”
Brendan’s shoulders sank, and Griff released a heavy breath.
“But,” Kyle went on, “I promise you that Emily and I are doing everything in our power to kick these aliens out of here and make sure I come home to you every night.”
His son held his gaze, and Kyle’s heart beat faster. The boy was nine now, growing up so fast, and he was beginning to understand some of the grim realities of this war. Sooner or later, he’d ask the inevitable question, What if everything in your power isn’t enough?
Griff nudged Brendan’s shoulder. “Why don’t you go put your books in your room, and we can all figure out something to eat?”
The prospect of a normal dinner and their normal evening routine seemed to shake Brendan out of his near-catatonic state of worry, and he nodded. “Okay.” He threw one last uncertain glance at Kyle but then scooped up his book bag and trotted out of the kitchen.
Griff watched Brendan go. When their son was out of sight, he turned his head toward Kyle, and Kyle saw the question in his eyes before the words came out.
“What if you can’t keep that promise, Kyle?”
“I didn’t promise him I would always come home. Only that I would do everything in my power to make sure I do.”
Griff held his gaze. There was nothing either of them could say that hadn’t already been said a dozen times before. Nothing that would keep Griff and Brendan from being scared or Kyle from being in harm’s way. Not until something changed and this war—this endless goddamned war—was finally over.
“Look, this war scares you, it scares Brendan, it scares me.” Kyle sighed. “It’s dangerous. There will be close calls like the one last night.” He pulled Griff into his arms. “But I promise, I’m staying here. I’m not going to Epsilon no matter how much my CO badgers me, and the Menarians aren’t taking me down no matter how bad they’d like to.”
Finally, Griff managed a soft laugh. “You arrogant son of a bitch.”
Kyle chuckled. “Damn right.”
“Just be careful out there, will you?” Griff stroked Kyle’s cheek. “We need you here.”
“I will.” He dropped a tender kiss on Griff’s forehead. “I promise, I will.”