Where was she, and where the hell were her clothes?
Flat on her back in a strange bed, Nikki Price stared up at the ceiling fan moving slower than the spinning ceiling. Click, click, click. Blades cycled overhead in the dim light, swaying the chain with a tiny wood pull dangling from the end.
"Ohmigod, ohmigod. Oh. My. God." What had she done last night?
She tried to look around but her eyeballs seemed stuck, all swollen and gritty in their sockets, her head too heavy to lift off the fabric-softener-fresh pillow, sheets equally as soft against her bare skin. All over bare. Goose bumps prickled over her completely n**ed body.
"Not right," she whispered to herself, her quiet voice bouncing around the quieter room sporting a hotel-generic decor. "Not right, not right."
Her bedroom fan pull sported a miniature soccer ball with tiny flowers painted on the white patches, a gift from her brother last Christmas. "Okay, I'm not totally losing it if I'm noticing silly details like overhead fixtures, right?"
No one answered. Thank God.
Still, nothing was familiar in the dim bedroom, only a hint of early sunrise streaking through the blinds. Voices swelled outside the walls. Her stomach clenched.
Okay, almost definitely a hotel.
She inched her fingers under the covers across the mattress, farther, farther again. Empty. She searched her mind for clues before she would have to turn her head and confront whoever might be in the room with her.
Panic stilled her more than even the nauseating ache stabbing through her skull. She hadn't drunk much the night before. Had she? She scrolled through the evening, getting ready to go to Beachcombers Bar and Grill for the live music—and a neutral place to break things off with Gary. But she couldn't recall much of anything after asking for a second amaretto sour. She wasn't an angel, but she'd never expected to wake up in a strange bed.
Of course she hadn't expected to do a lot of the reckless things she'd done over the past seven months since Carson Hunt tromped her heart. Truly tromped. Not the sort of temporary hurt that came from having a crush go south or getting dumped by a guy she'd just met. No. He'd deep down damaged her soul so much that even thinking about him still made it difficult to breathe. The ache of betrayal by her first real love might never go away.
Although these days she was more mad than hurt.
Could she have been mad enough last night to do something beyond reckless? Something totally stupid. Apparently she had since here she was. She'd thought she was ready to break up with the latest loser she'd been dating in hopes of filling that empty spot left by Carson. Finally she would move on with her life.
Okay, so she dated Air Force pilots—like Carson. From the base where Carson was stationed. And most of them happened to be tall and blond like, well, Carson. It had only taken her seven months to make the connection—hello?—but once she had, she'd resolved to set her life right again and end things with her latest Carson substitute, Gary Owens.
No wonder she'd frozen up when any of those dates so much as kissed her. She wasn't interested in them. Which made her feel even worse. No guy—even a loser—deserved to be used as a replacement for another man.
Her stomach rebelled. So why was she n**ed in a hotel room? Apparently she'd gotten over her kissing aversion.
She swallowed down fear along with a prayer that whoever she'd been with had used a condom. From here on out, she would stop being such a loser. She risked a deeper breath, inhaling the scent of laundry detergent. Masculine cologne—ohmigod.
Breathe in...cologne and an air of something else, an unfamiliar smell she couldn't quite identify, but her body shivered in disgust all the same. Somebody was in the room with her. Still asleep? Or in the bathroom?
Please, please, please at least let it be Gary, even if they'd never slept together before. He hadn't been at the bar last night for those few minutes and couple of drinks she could remember, but he'd been the one to set up the meeting by sending her an e-mail asking her for a date.
Bracing herself for the worst anyway, she arched her aching body, her head pounding as she rolled onto her side under the cotton sheets. Fresh pain pounded as her cheek met the pillow, but she stifled the urge to moan. The room appeared as empty as the bed. She gulped in gasping breaths, her heart now hammering harder than her head, relief making her darn near dizzy. At least if he was in the bathroom, she would have a second to collect herself.
Palms flattened to the mattress, she angled up, cool morning air prickling along her skin. Winters in South Carolina were all the chillier for the humidity. Cold and damp, like the ancient tombs her junior high students were currently studying in honors history class—and ohmigod, she was going to be late for work.
"Hello?" Her voice crackled up her parched throat. "Uhm, I would really appreciate it if you wrapped a towel around yourself before coming out."
She didn't risk guessing a name.
Nikki waited, but still no sounds from the shower or anywhere else. She squinted to look through the dim morning light across the room. The tiny bathroom seemed abandoned. Relief rode a shuddering exhale racking through her.
She would worry later about the rest when she swiped the fog from her head. She wasn't off scot-free thanks to those unaccounted for hours, but she didn't have to confront the awful awkwardness—and horror—of facing some guy she couldn't even remember picking up.
New leaf turnover time.
Hell, she would turn over a whole flipping tree. She was done feeling sorry for herself just because Carson "Ultimate Loser" Hunt had drop-kicked her heart in one unforgettable night. She would take control of her life and her emotions.
Pressing the heel of her hand to her melon-heavy head, she swung her feet to the floor. Thud. Her toes struck something solid rather than carpet. She toppled forward, her heart double-timing to marathon pace.
Arms flailing she grabbed for the end table, slammed to her knees, her teeth jarring together. Pain sliced through her head. She squinted in the faint light....
And stared straight into the unblinking eyes of the dead man on the floor.
* * *
Major Carson "Scorch" Hunt was dead tired and he hadn't even eaten breakfast yet.
Of course he hadn't fallen into bed until two in the morning due to an emergency on the flight line and he was back at his desk by dawn, hoping for a more peaceful day. No such luck.
Now thanks to a phone call from the security police, peace was on hold for far longer than the sausage-and-egg croissant he'd picked up at a fast-food joint. On his way out the office door again, he jammed his arms back into his leather flight jacket that had never made it onto the brass anchor peg before his phone rang.
A lieutenant from his squadron was dead.
Damn it. His fisted hand snagged inside the sleeve. He punched it through.
He'd braced himself for the possibility of losing someone in battle, but not at home. Worse yet, the young pilot was Carson's responsibility as second in charge, since the commander was deployed to the Middle East with the other half of the squadron.
Shrugging the jacket over his shoulders, he bolted down the hall, through the glass door and out into the parking lot. Early morning traffic clogged the base streets, adhering to the so-damn-slow speed limits. Screw it. The VOQ—visiting officer's quarters—was only about a mile away. On foot would be faster, taking him there in under five minutes. He sprinted through the web of parked cars, tucked through the creeping traffic, ignored the honks.
The phone call from base security police hadn't said more than Lieutenant Gary Owens was found dead in the VOQ with a woman.
Owens had an apartment downtown, but sometimes guys checked into one of the rooms for the night if they were partying nearby and too drunk to drive home—or if they lucked into unexpected plans for the night. With a woman.
Boots pounding pavement, Carson tried to block thoughts of exactly which woman Owens had been dating for the past month. Of course stemming thoughts of Nikki Price had been damn near impossible for a long time. For over two years, actually, since a pool party at a squadron member's apartment when he'd realized his crew member's daughter had grown up. Really grown up. Smart, sexy, twelve years his junior and the daughter of a man he respected and admired. Not to mention Carson wasn't in a place to offer any woman a secure, stable happily-ever-after.
And still he had weakened and betrayed his friend by sleeping with Nikki. Once. A mistake he couldn't repeat even though his pulse rate jack-hammered through him at the mere possibility Nikki could be in trouble.
Carson left the road for a shortcut across the lawn, past pine trees and bare-limbed oaks. He had no claim to Nikki, and yet here he was, running like hell for her as much as the dead lieutenant. Her boyfriend.
He couldn't stomach thinking about her with Owens. But who else could be in that room? And if the guy had been cheating on Nikki with another woman then somebody deserved an ass kicking.
Except damn, damn, damn it all, Owens was already dead, a screwed-up kid who'd just gotten his life back on track. Carson had been so sure he'd helped the baby pilot, but had he intervened soon enough?
Think. Focus. If Nikki was inside that brick building, then she needed him, even if he was the last person she would want to see.
Each huffing bootstep drawing him closer, Carson trained his eyes on the security cop cars—at least a dozen—encircling the three-story building along with an ambulance. Looked like everyone who wasn't guarding the gates had been called. Police in camo and blue berets secured the scene. An SP—security police officer—guarding the front entry held up a hand.
Before the military cop could speak, Carson nodded. "I'm Lieutenant Owens's commander."
The SP nodded and saluted. "I'll radio ahead and let them know you're on your way, sir. Down that hall and around the corner."
"Thank you, Sergeant." Carson slowed his feet, if not his pulse that still slugged from dread more than the mile sprint.
He cleared the front desk and strode down the narrow carpeted hallway, taking the corner on a sharp pivot. The corridor hummed with organized pandemonium, more cops and base medical personnel, a couple of agents from the Air Force OSI—Office of Special Investigation.
His eyes scanned past to home in on one person.
A woman sat huddled in a chair outside a VOQ room, blanket wrapped around her while her teeth chattered, security cops on either side. He didn't need to see a face to recognize her. Nikki Price.
She looked up, the motion jerky from shock most likely. Her eyes locked on his down the length of the passageway, dark circles underneath. Hair even darker, tangled around her head in a silky mess that begged his fingers to comb through, to rest on her shoulders and pull her to his chest for the comfort she no doubt needed.
Her fingers went slack around the deep red blanket until the edge slid open to reveal her clothes. Jeans and a silky pink shirt, mis-buttoned as if hastily snatched up and on—the same clothes she'd been wearing when he ran into her the night before. He stuffed back the kick of jealousy and moved closer. Still she didn't speak, a slight tightening of her full lips the only indication she registered his approach.
He wrestled with the detachment he would need to get through the next hour, a difficult battle. He looked past her into the room to the sheet over a body on the floor. Closing his eyes, he swallowed and winged a quick prayer for the dead man. There was nothing more he could do for Owens.
Nikki needed him.
Carson knelt beside her, too aware of the cops standing guard a few feet away. "Nikki?"
Finally, he let himself look at her face again even as he steeled himself for the unshakable draw combined with guilt that made it tough to think around her, much less speak. He worked to read her expression, but her face was blank. Still he couldn't miss the pale cast under her olive complexion.
She glanced up, frowning, confused. Or disoriented? Her shaky hand rose toward his face. "Your mustache. It's gone."