DAMIEN WARD scowled as he pulled his battered truck up next to the private hangar outside of Napa Valley. The hangar was small, housing one Cessna 182, one Cessna Grand Caravan, one deluxe refurbished Black Hawk passenger helicopter specially outfitted with soundproofing and medical equipment, and one AS350 B3e helicopter that was currently out on a mission.
All four aircraft were painted an elegant eggshell color with a green lizard on the side, part of the logo that read Gecko Inc., the private rescue service run by Damien and his partner, Glen Echo, call sign Gecko.
Glen was the one out in the AS350.
Still out on a goddamned mission.
He should have been back yesterday.
As Damien turned the truck off, leaped out, and hurried for the small door in the side of the hangar, an equally battered Ford F-150 pulled to a stop next to his truck, and Damien repressed a groan.
Shit. He’d hoped to have some news before Preston got here, but he’d underestimated Preston’s ability to drive like a bat out of hell.
He had not, however, underestimated the ability of Glen’s little brother to disturb his libido. It wasn’t easy as he watched the rangy young man emerge from his vehicle, feet planted one at a time, and whistle sharply for Preacher, a hundred short-haired, block-headed pounds of his favorite dog. Damien tried to ignore the little punch of longing that hit him right in the solar plexus. Preston had wheat-gold hair and sky-blue eyes and a rectangular square-jawed face right out of a superhero movie—but it was more than the fact that he looked like every Chris and Steve on the screen.
Preston moved with an unconscious grace and an absolute focus. Every movement was about getting him from point A to point B with as little extra motion as possible. His brain was like that too. The most direct route to the most useful conclusion.
It was something Damien really admired about him—and feared a little too.
Damien’s own conclusions about himself these days were pretty straightforward and pretty painful. Hearing the obvious come out of Preston’s mouth would destroy him.
“He’s not here yet,” Preston said, lowering his hand to Preacher’s head and rubbing his ears rhythmically.
“I know,” Damien said as he pulled out his keys and opened the door.
“He was supposed to be back last night.”
“I know.” The office was dark, just as it had been after Glen took off three days before. The desk sat in the corner, paperwork neatly in the outbox, laptop turned off and unplugged to save energy. Any business calls would be routed to Glen’s and Damien’s cell phones, since they were mostly out of the office anyway. While Gecko Inc., their independent search-and-rescue firm, was their baby, depending on people who needed to be rescued and had families willing to pay for beyond-the-usual government services was not really a good source of steady income. The three-seater was used in aerial tours of the Bay Area, and the Black Hawk and Cessnas were frequently used to shuttle people from point A to point B with a minimum of fuss.
Damien himself was most often employed by a startup firm that helped get athletes off the ground and into the pro circuit of their specialty. Damien had been shuttling Mallory Armstrong and his husband, Tevyn, to Tevyn’s house in Colorado when Glen had gotten the call.
It hadn’t been an emergency, really. In Glen’s words, “Some punk kid got himself in a jam and fell off the grid in Mexico. I know where he was last, and I’ve got a friend who’s got a probable location. I’ll go check it out.”
Damien had told him to wait—they could both go down. He’d only been three hours away, but Glen, stubborn bastard, had been convinced he could be in and out in forty-eight hours.
Twelve hours in, he’d called and said he had the kid, they were negotiating a truce, and Glen would have him back in a day. Damien hadn’t wanted to ask about the “negotiating a truce” part. For one thing, he wasn’t sure what the war between Glen and this particular “punk kid” was about, and for another? Glen was not necessarily a diplomat.
Damien hadn’t wanted to point out that the reason they’d both been honorably discharged from the service was that Glen had threatened a CO with bodily harm if he didn’t let Glen and Damien go back and retrieve a fallen soldier. The CO had refused, Glen and Damien had done it anyway, and it had taken Damien’s quiet threat to have the man brought up on charges of cowardice to keep them both from a court-martial.
So Damien had been worried and had offered to take the Black Hawk to Puerto Vallarta so Glen would have backup, but Glen had flat-out refused.
“I’ll be damned if I let this little bastard call the shots,” he’d muttered, and Damien had just stepped back. There was no talking to Gecko when he got this cold-blooded. Fifteen years of friendship told Damien that.
But twelve hours after that contact, Damien had called again, and Glen’s blistering tirade about entitled little assholes who thought they knew everything had been cut off by a dropped signal.
There’d been an earthquake in the area, and Glen hadn’t responded to Damien’s frantic calls over the last few hours. Damien had filed the flight plan from his phone and called Preston en route to the hangar.
But Damien and Glen lived in Burlingame, and Preston lived on a stretch of undeveloped farmland about twenty miles in the other direction from the hangar. Damien hadn’t counted on traffic—or the fact that Preston probably had a go-bag packed at all times and had probably repacked it when his brother had failed to call.
Damien plugged in the laptop and flipped it open, then lowered himself carefully into the desk chair, keeping his face blank. His leg was 85 percent functional now—but that 15 percent missing came with a lot of pain and stiffness, and he didn’t like to complain.
“What are you doing?” Preston asked loudly, and Damien startled a little, because the office was a quiet cubicle in the vast echo chamber of the hangar.
“Looking up your brother’s flight plan,” Damien said. “And the supply manifest in the Black Hawk and the Cessna.”
“Which one are we taking?”
Damien had filed the plan for the Caravan because he knew some of the smaller airstrips in the area, and Preston and his dog were more comfortable in the larger plane. He had a feeling the Black Hawk’s ability to land in a tighter place might be useful—too bad the damned thing was like a tank being lifted by a hummingbird, though, so he would have to worry about fuel a lot sooner.
“The Caravan,” Damien said briefly. “You can start loading your stuff and let Preacher get a good sniff around it. It’s been fueled up, but I think we may need to load some of the supplies from the Black Hawk into the luggage compartment. I want to be ready for everything.”
Preston grunted. “Are you?” he asked baldly.
“Am I what?”
“Ready for everything?”
Damien swallowed. “It’s impossible to be ready for everything, Preston. You know that. I just want to try—”
“I don’t mean supplies,” Preston said. “I mean you.”
“The leg can take it,” he said evenly. A trip that long would be rough, but he’d been good at setting the autopilot and stretching once an hour to keep himself from cramping up.
“I didn’t know the leg was a problem, which pisses me off,” Preston muttered. “But that’s not my question. Are you still afraid to fly?”
Shit. “I’m not afraid to fly,” he lied. “I flew back from Colorado yesterday, remember? I make my life in the air—”
Preston growled, like one of the dogs he spent so much of his time with. “Don’t lie to me,” he said. “My brother is missing, and he can’t rescue us if something goes wrong!”
“I don’t need rescuing!” Damien burst out. “I’m fine. I can get us there, and we’ll find him, and everything will be fine.”
“Everything is not fine!” Preston shouted. “Glen is gone, and you haven’t been the same since the crash. If everything was fine, we’d be having sex when we’re together, but it’s not, so we’re not, and I’m tired of it. I don’t want sex right now, but I really want to find my brother!”
Damien scrubbed at his face with his hand. Emotional evasion—he was great at it. Preston, on the other hand, was the opposite. “Uh, Preston, that’s a lot to unpack—”
“It’s all true,” Preston said stubbornly.
“You’re my partner’s brother,” Damien said patiently. “A relationship would be problematic. I told you that last year—”
“Glen said you were lying,” Preston said, surprising him. “He said you were lying because you didn’t want to talk about what was really wrong. He said I had to wait for you. I’ve waited. I’m bored waiting. And now we have to find Glen, and I need to know if you’re all right.” His fair skin was flushed and blotchy on his cheeks and neck, and he had the same irritated look Glen got whenever Damien said he was fine. Or lately, whenever Glen made some sort of snarky comment and Damien had no comeback. Last week, Damien’s best friend had told him he was as much fun as a battery acid enema.
Great. Brothers. Go figure.
“My leg is stiff,” Damien said, deciding the truth would get them out of the hangar sooner. “But it will be fine. And as for that other thing, I can fly just fine. Recertified before I got back in the saddle, remember?” He’d thrown up for an hour after he’d landed. He hadn’t told anybody that, not even Glen. “I’m not going to hide in the corner right now when your brother needs me—you get that, don’t you?”
“Sure,” Preston snapped. “You hide in the corner when I need you but not when my brother needs you.”
“You’ve never needed me,” Damien said sadly. “I know that, Preston. You’re okay without me.”
Preston looked past Damien’s ear, his face set without expression. “I lied that day,” he said. “I didn’t know it was lying, but I lied.” He shook himself and put his hand down on top of Preacher’s head again.
“We’ve got to get moving,” Damien told him, hoping to end this moment, this painful, confusing moment, before either one of them said something they couldn’t take back.
“I’ll go load stuff,” Preston said. “But we’ll be in the plane for hours, Damien. You’ll have to talk to me sometime.”
“Sure.” Damien rubbed his stomach. “I’m going to hit the head and start looking through supplies.”
Preston gave him five minutes before he barged into the bathroom, using the master key he’d gotten from the office. He found Damien on his knees during what had become his preflight ritual, tossing his cookies into the commode.
Preston stood at the doorway and watched expressionlessly as Damien finished, for which Damien was grateful. Some people might have offered a hand on the head or the back, which would have been sweet, but frankly Damien didn’t want to be touched.
Damien went to the sink and washed up, then finished up with toothpaste and turned back toward the door. Preston was still regarding him with lowered brows.
“What’s wrong?” Preston asked.
“Got sick.” Damien hoped that would do it, but as he watched Preston’s hand come down for Preacher’s head again, he realized that of all people, Preston would get the physical response to the strong emotion.
“Why?” Preston asked, expression not moving.
“I just do. Come on. I want to finish up so we can go. Reports coming out of Jalisco and Nayarit are saying that some of the smaller outlying villages in the area have been really damaged by the quake. We may need to contact emergency workers and let them know to look out for your brother and Cash Harper—”
“The punk kid?” Preston clarified.
“Yeah. He’s the guy your brother was supposed to go get. Anyway, we’ve got to….”
He approached the doorway, but Preston didn’t move.
Damien’s breath caught. Preston spent entire weeks out training with his dogs, running around the property in Napa that he and Glen had inherited from their grandparents. His body was rangy, muscular, and always seemed to smell just a little bit of the out of doors and pleasant exertion.
And his chest was as wide as a truck and right now looked as unbreakable as a brick wall.
“Preston?” he said uncertainly.
“Talk to me,” Preston said, his voice thready with hurt. “My whole life, you’ve been the one person who would talk to me. You were never afraid of me, never afraid of the things I might say. You used to talk too fucking much, but that was fine. Comforting. Ever since the accident, you don’t talk at all—and especially not to me. Other people, maybe, but not Glen and me. Why are you getting sick? Why isn’t your leg getting better? Why won’t you talk to me?”
Damien looked into his face with a mixture of fear and yearning. A year and a half ago, before the helicopter crash that had nearly taken Damien’s leg, he’d longed for Preston to look him in the eyes and tell him in some way, any way, that Damien was special.
But after the crash, Preston had grown remote and alien, like he was afraid to talk to Damien the way they had before, and Damien?
Damien had been a mess. Who wanted to get into a relationship with a guy learning to walk again? A pilot afraid to fly?
Damien had thrown himself into recovery and bid thoughts of Preston, of the half-articulated hopes he’d had, goodbye.
But Preston was standing in front of him, keeping him from going to Glen, and Damien had a hard enough time staying as cold and distant to Preston as Preston had been to him.
“Why does it matter?” he asked bitterly. “We need to get your brother, and I’m the pilot to do it. Why does it matter if my leg will never be the same, or flying makes me break into a cold sweat before I go up?”
“You used to love to fly,” Preston said, stoic mask relaxing, eyes expressive. “You told me it was your one wonderful thing.”
Damien shook his head, that moment in the air etched behind his eyes and needing no excuses to intrude and make him panic. “So were you,” he said, feeling miserable. “But you didn’t want me. Now can we go? Your brother needs us.”
He didn’t want to touch Preston without his permission. Preston liked hands on his shoulders, hard tight hugs. Preston was unashamed of infringing on personal space, but consent and permission had been drilled into him from an early age. Nobody touched him without his consent, and he gave the world the same consideration.
So what Preston said next shocked him. “I’m going to hug you now. Don’t startle.”
Damien’s eyes flew open, and Preston wrapped strong arms around his shoulders.