"Thanks." Sort of.
"But while we're on the subject of that really scumbag thing you did for which you have finally apologized but never explained..." She dumped another load of pine straw, her face averted a little too conveniently to be coincidence.
"Noticed that, did you?" He leaned on the rake, taking in the overstiff brace of her shoulders and wanting to kick his own ass.
"Tough not to notice." She slumped back against the tree, hands behind her. "So why did you walk out the door and never bother to call? Or better yet, why did you invite me through your door in the first place?"
And into his bed. That much, at least, he remembered along with the feel of her bare chest against his as they'd tumbled onto the mattress. He'd just lost most of the parts between bed and waking up. The good parts, stolen by a drunken blackout. Finding Nikki n**ed next to him in the morning and knowing he'd broken her trust, her father's trust and his own code of honor made him realize he'd bottomed out.
He'd rolled his sorry, hungover butt off the mattress and found an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter. A.A. meetings had saved his life. Slowly, he was regaining his self-respect.
One day at a time. Never take it for granted.
"Why did I go to bed with you?" The truth wouldn't hurt any worse. He flattened a hand to the tree beside her head and let what he was thinking and feeling show for the first time in...he couldn't remember when. "Because I really wanted to be there, for a long time, almost from the first time I saw you. You were legal, but damn, you were young. And on that day, I was truly too much of a scumbag to stay away—"
"Stop." She clapped a hand to his mouth.
"Stop?" Speaking felt too much like kissing her hand, which messed with his head more than any drink.
"I've changed my mind." Her hand trembled. "I don't want to hear this tonight. I want to rake leaves and talk like we used to." Her hand fell away.
Her soft touch lingered, a simple caress when they'd shared far more overtly sexual touches and still he went stone hard, wanting her so much his teeth hurt. "Before you realized I'm a scumbag?"
Wasn't that what he'd wanted as well in coming here tonight? So go. Leave. "Do you think you can really forget what I did that night?"
"I can forget for an evening."
Less than he'd hoped for but more than he deserved. "Fair enough."
Since she didn't move away he let himself keep staring into her eyes. What could happen outside in her parents' front yard while traffic inched past? Branches rustled overhead raining more pine straw around them, some catching in her hair. He lifted his hand and still she didn't move away, apparently as caught in this insanity as he was. He swept his fingers over her head. Silky strands. So damn soft that before he knew it he'd cupped the base of her skull.
Her pupils went wide, her gray eyes stormier still until he could have sworn the sun was sinking faster. So easily he could urge her closer. Or step forward. Or hell, just lean and taste her because it killed him, absolutely freaking killed him, that he only had spotty recollections of what happened between them that night.
He would give anything to have at least the memory of those lost hours. Although he suspected remembering would torment him even more.
The front door blasted open a second ahead of her brother Chris loping through onto the porch. "Mom sent me out to ask if Carson would like to stay for supper?"
A mom probably smart enough to realize things needed breaking up out front before he snapped the thin thread of Nikki's returning trust.
Carson backed away, shoving his hands in his pockets. He didn't deserve that trust, but he would be damned if he would abuse it again. As much as he wanted to climb those steps and hang out with this awesomely normal family and listen to Nikki's even more amazing laugh, he knew better now. He'd made a step in reclaiming their friendship, but would need to tread warily to resist stealing more.
"Thanks, but I need to get back to the squadron."
She really needed to get back to work, but there were no new breaks in the investigation.
Nostalgia and longing mellowing her, Nikki stared down the empty corridor at the high school, only the rumblings of Saturday in-school suspension swelling from the lunchroom. At least she still had her tutoring stints here with older students until she resumed her junior high position. She glanced at her Minnie Mouse wristwatch she'd bought on a lark because she thought it would charm her cranky fourth period class.
Ten minutes early. Good. That would give her time to set up in the library.
Her footsteps echoed down the hall as she passed a poster announcing an FCA meeting. Good luck banners stretched for the basketball team along with a sign for the drama department's upcoming production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
She ached to teach her students, to recapture the rash of that moment when youthful eyes lit with enthusiasm over learning something new. She even loved the challenge of breaking through with the surly ones. Junior high was such a pivotal time, building foundations and confidence to carry into this high school world with temptations and dangers beyond any she'd seen just a few short years ago when she'd graduated.
And the world beyond was definitely scarier than she'd ever imagined.
Who'd have thought she would yearn for lesson plans? Or even a tour of bus duty? She would sacrifice almost anything for a stack of ungraded papers to take her mind off what happened in the yard with Carson. Had she really almost kissed him again? And why was he working so hard for her forgiveness now?
Nikki rounded the corner into the library where she would meet up with Billy Wade Watkins. The kid didn't seem particularly interested in learning, but he preferred school to home. A start. Hopefully he would realize that education was a means to a better life. Not that social services had been able to prove squat. He'd been removed and returned to his alcoholic parents twice over the years. She'd even tried to work some magic for the kid through the base since his father was retired military, but no luck.
She scanned rows of books lining the walls, more partitioning aisles and study stations until she spied the top of a masculine head in a computer booth, a dark-haired male like Billy Wade, apparently making use of the free Internet time. She rounded a large circular table on her way to the cubicle. Feet came into view—no ratty Nike runners, but rather leather loafers?
Not the standard student gear around this school. So where was Billy Wade?
The male stood, Special Agent David Reis emerging from behind the cubicle wall. The last person she expected to see here, and one guaranteed to scare the bejesus out of her.
Her stomach bolted up to her throat. What was he doing here? And on a Saturday?
Willing her nerves to settle, she dropped her grade book, papers and text on the table to give herself an extra second to regain her composure around the investigator. Thank God he didn't have handcuffs in sight.
"Is there something I can help you with, Agent Reis? Did you receive the e-mail I sent to your office with a list of all Gary's friends?" Babbling. Not good, but she couldn't stop the tumble of words from her mouth. "I also forwarded a copy of the post Gary sent me that night, inviting me to join him at Beachcombers."
"I got it, but that's not what I'm here for." Reaching back behind the cube wall, he lifted a paper bag. "Here is your purse back. I'm sorry to say we have to keep your clothes for evidence."
And why bring it here? Unease tickled up her spine in spite of the lack of handcuffs. She took the sack grateful they'd let her have her credit cards and license that first day. Her clothes, however, they could keep forever. "I could have come to the base to pick it up."
"Thought I would save you the trip since I already had business out this way." He shoved his hands in his pockets, fished out a pack of gum, offering her a piece—she shook her head—before folding a stick in his mouth. All the while, he never took his eyes off her.
She resisted the urge to fidget like a bug under a science lab microscope. But wait? He already had business out here? "You've been questioning people I work with?"
"That bothers you?"
"Of course it does." She tossed the sack onto the round table with such force it slid to a stop against her grade book. "I've already been put on a leave of absence at the junior high because of this mess. I need my work back—"
"I'm sorry for any financial inconvenience."
His expressionless stare reminded her of a circling shark peering through that microscope, and sheesh what a mixed-up image that was. She really needed to air out her brain before she returned to work full-time.
And to do that, she needed to help Agent Reis however she could. "It's not about the money. It's about my students who need consistency. It's about how much I love my job."
"It's also about a man who lost his life."
"I understand that better than most, wouldn't you think?"
"Then you'll appreciate why I'm here." His shark stare warmed with a hint of human compassion. "Actually, coming here could well clear you."
"Clear me? Gary never came here."
"As I told your major friend when he came to my office, I have to consider that someone may have gone after Owens because of you."
As much as she wanted to rejoice over any option that cleared her, she cringed to think that she could have caused Gary's death, even inadvertently. "Who? I can hardly wrap my head around this."
"I can't discuss details of an ongoing investigation."
Even being a suspect brought such a total lack of privacy she felt exposed. Her hands twitched to check her sapphire button-down shirt with her black slacks. She hated the vulnerable gesture, the near irrepressible need to be sure she was totally covered.
She forced her hands back to her sides and hoped Reis hadn't noticed—only to realize the shark-eyed investigator hadn't missed a thing. In fact his gaze was still locked on her clothes.
On her body?
Okay, now she was totally feeling exposed and completely freaked out. He couldn't be interested in her. Could he?
He was an intriguing man, no doubt, handsome in a dark and serious kind of way. Which made him completely not her type since apparently she had a real weak spot for fair-headed charmers. But how did she discourage this guy without embarrassing both of them? Provided she was even reading him right.
Thank God Billy Wade Watkins chose that moment to amble through the library entrance, silver chains on his baggy clothes jangling. "Ms. Price? Sorry I'm late. I had to drop off my dad at some church meeting thing so I could use the truck."
"Over here, Billy Wade." She backed away from the investigator. "Agent Reis, thank you for bringing my things, but I have to get to work."
"Of course. Let me know if you remember anything more." He leaned closer, his eyes over her shoulder. "Be careful. Schools aren't the safest places to hang out these days."
He brushed around and past, leaving behind his Double-mint gum scent and unwelcome doubts about her students, as well as questions about that whole strange once-over moment from Reis that still totally creeped her out. She'd been so looking forward to this tutoring session, yet suddenly she wanted nothing more than to rake pine straw with Carson.
And that unsettled her as much as the prospect of Reis prying in her personal life.
* * *
Prying the dog tag on his flight boot out of Jamie Price's mouth, Carson passed the toddler a graham cracker in exchange. If only adults were as easy to figure out as the pint-size versions. "There ya' go, kiddo."
The chubby-cheeked child snatched the treat and shoved it into his mouth in a shower of crumbs and cuteness. Carson ruffled the fella's dark curls, wiped the drool off the dog tag and climbed back up the ladder in the Price kitchen to replace the battery on the smoke detector.