He'd already checked every battery, furnace filter, window and door lock, and still it wasn't enough. Nothing would be enough until Nikki was in the clear and he knew exactly what happened the night Gary Owens died.
So he worked to fix what he could.
After leaving Nikki and her too-tempting rake, he'd run himself into a stupor until three in the morning. Not that sleep came easy with her eyes haunting the back of his eyelids. By sunrise, he'd decided his idea to spend more time with her may have been ill-advised. He would return to his original plan to check in with her family and Reis.
Except halfway to the marina for a day of sailing, he'd turned toward her parents' place to ask her to join him—just to keep her occupied and cheer her up after her forced sabbatical. Right.
Jesus. He hadn't been led around by his libido like this since high school. Still he waited for Nikki rather than simply leaving. And actually, hanging out with her mama and short stuff wasn't a great hardship. He suspected there were a lot of clues to what made Nikki tick to be found in this ivy-stenciled kitchen.
Rena reached into the cabinet and pulled down two Mason jars like the others perched on her windowsill. Water and plant clippings filled each glass container, some stems sprouting new root webs. "You're really going above and beyond in your acting commander duties."
He folded the ladder and propped it beside the fridge.
"The squadron's only at half power with the rest deployed overseas." This house brimmed with so much life—plants, kid, pregnancy, even rising bread—he could hardly take it all in. Take. He hated that word and was trying his damnedest not to be a taker like his parents.
She twisted on the faucet and slid a jar underneath the gushing flow. "Even at half power, you're still dealing with quite a load if you're giving everyone this much individual attention."
Of course she would know better. He was doing his job and pulling overtime, but even that didn't involve multiple home visits in a week. "These are extraordinary circumstances. Besides, J.T. and I have history from crewing together. He would look out for my family in the same way—if I had one."
Out of smoke detectors and furnace filters to fix, he dropped his restless butt at the table. For years he'd never questioned his decision to stay single, but parked in this kitchen, he couldn't ignore the regret tugging at him as strongly as the toddler yanking on the dog tag on his boot again.
The water overflowed. "Do we have reason to worry about Nikki?"
He held out his hands to the little guy on the floor to buy himself time to think. Plunking the kid on his knee, Carson tugged the dog tags from around his neck and passed them over. "I wish I had the answer to that one, Rena, but I honestly don't know."
She shuffled the jar to the counter and filled the other, then tossed two fern clippings inside before placing them on the sill. "She only tells me the basics about what happened with Gary Owens, so I worry all the more."
"The OSI agent leading the investigation seems sharp."
Rena sank into a chair across from him, nudging a line of tiny Tonka trucks across the table toward her son who ignored them in favor of his new favorite teething toy—dog tags. "So the worst that could happen is that Nikki—" she paused, swallowed, then continued "—killed him in self-defense as opposed to an accidental death."
The worst? Someone could be gunning for her, far worse.
And there were two women and a child here with just a college kid for protection. He didn't like this at all. To hell with worrying about treading warily while rebuilding a friendship. Damn straight he was concerned and he intended to talk to Reis about protection options. This would be easier if Rena and J. T. Price lived on base, except this whole mess had started on base. So if someone else had killed Owens, that someone had access to military installations.
All serious concerns, ones a pregnant woman didn't need. He studied her face as she rubbed her swelling belly.
"How are you feeling?"
She swung her feet up onto a spare chair. "Like I'll go stir-crazy sitting still for four more months."
"Seems to me there's plenty going on around here." He slid a discarded piece of junk mail across the table and started folding. "Don'tcha think, little guy?"
Jamie flashed him a gummy grin broken only by a few baby teeth and the remnants of graham cracker. Damn he was cute with all that dark hair and those saucer-wide dark eyes, in fact resembled the baby pictures of Nikki packing the house.
"You're good with children." Rena interrupted his thoughts.
Uh-oh. He knew that matchmaking tone well. He folded faster. "Uncle on-the-job training."
"You'll be a good father someday once you find that right woman."
He needed to put a stop to this line of conversation as quickly and politely as possible. He cranked a smile. "Why do all women assume a man's only single because he hasn't met the right woman?"
Her face pinked in sync with her embarrassed grimace.
"I'm sorry. That was presumptuous of me. Blame it on the inquisitive counselor not getting to log in those hours at work—" The phone chirped from the wall, interrupting whatever else she'd been planning to say.
Passing the kid the folded paper airplane to keep him quiet while Rena talked, Carson used the moment to gather his thoughts before the woman managed to wrench God-only-knew what else out of him. He definitely had too many secrets to let down his guard around her. He'd all but forgotten she was a shrink, she'd put him so at ease. Probably why she was reputed to be such a good one.
After the shoot-down and rescue in the Middle East, he'd been evaluated at a base in Germany. He'd managed to sidestep the head examiners over there, a skill honed in his childhood.
Hindsight showed him his mistake. His alcoholism had flared after his return until he'd hooked up with A.A.
However sharing details in a therapeutic setting was totally different than spilling his guts to Rena Price. He was coming to terms with his childhood, but that didn't mean he wanted to take out a billboard about all his neglectful parents had forgotten to do for him and all the things their coked-up friends had tried to do to him. He couldn't understand how his sister managed to trust her genes enough to marry, much less procreate.
He could almost hear Nikki teasing him for his stuffy word choice. She was every bit as full of humor and life as this house.
Rena tucked the cordless phone under her chin and reached for Jamie, clutching him close with an urgency that spoke of maternal fear. "I'll track down your brother to pick you up, sweetie."
Pick Nikki up? "What's wrong?"
She fished the paper airplane out of Jamie's mouth, hugging him tight again. "Nikki's stranded at the high school, car trouble."
Relief slammed through him. A simple spark plug or flooded car. Except wait, J. T. Price, a proficient mechanic, had taught his kids well. Premonition pricked a second before Rena continued.
"Someone slashed Nikki's tires."
* * *
Nikki kept her eyes on the access road leading into the high school parking lot, a preferable sight to her pitiful little truck with its deflated tires, currently being loaded on a flatbed tow truck.
Billy Wade shuffled from foot to foot, his baggy clothes defying gravity by staying on his body in spite of the weight of the mint of silver chains hanging off them. "Too bad we don't have four cans of that flat-fix-it stuff."
"It's okay, really. My ride's on the way. And honestly, I think my tires are beyond any can of foam repair."
"This really blows." Dyed black hair, long on one side, hung over his face in a greasy curtain. "When I find out who did this to you, he won't be bothering you no more."
"Anymore. And thank you. That's sweet of you to worry, but once the school checks surveillance video footage, they'll probably be able to nail the person responsible."
He went stock-still. Too still. "They have cameras out here?"
"Yes, Billy Wade, they do." God, she hated suspecting him of doing anything illegal, but Reis's suspicions still rolled through her mind.
"I could, uh, just give you a ride, you know. My dad's track might not look like much, but it runs real good and has four full tires."
"Your dad's truck looks a lot like my father's Ford."
"Really?" The teen's mask of bored insolence slid away for a rare second. "Your old man drives a beater, too? I wouldn'ta guessed we had anything in common."
He stepped closer. Too close. Into her personal space.
Okay, uncomfortable moment. Step back, keep her composure and take heart in knowing those surveillance cameras would show she hadn't made a single improper move with this kid. Although it saddened her heart that the days had long passed when a teacher could even pat a student on the back. A few pervs had ruined it for everyone else.
She crossed her arms over her chest. "Thank you for the offer, but I have a ride on the way."
"That him?" Billy Wade pointed to the turn lane. And Carson's sparkling truck. That sure wasn't her brother behind the wheel.
Oh boy. Her mama was gonna have some explaining to do. Except that would necessitate showing how much it bothered her that Carson was the one picking her up instead of Chris, and in the middle of all those muddled emotions she was so darn relieved to see Carson driving their way. Four slashed tires, close on the heels of Agent Reis's warning really gave her the creeps.
"I can see why you'd rather go with him." Billy Wade's face returned to surly, a cover for insecurity—she was pretty sure.
The impulse to assert she and Carson were just friends bubbled up, then fizzed in light of better sense. Letting Billy Wade and any other boys around here think she and Carson were dating would work to her advantage. She wasn't much older than these students, so erecting boundaries was all the more important. "Thanks for hanging out to help."
"Sure. Whatever. Nothing else to do."
Billy Wade ambled over toward his father's rusted-out truck, chains on his saggy black pants jangling with each heavy step. He really was a sharp kid with a good heart, and a very real chance of landing in jail someday like his brothers.
Carson's truck shooshed to a stop beside her, hunky fly-boy behind the wheel in a navy-blue windbreaker for sailing and a smile that turned her heart over faster than that big cylinder engine of his.
"I hear you need a lift."
She turned her back on Billy Wade and the new host of worries she couldn't do anything about today.
Her eyes slid from Carson's chest to his scowl—directed right at Billy Wade as the teen continued his badass strut right past his truck and melded into the smoking cluster of other in-school-suspension students.
Nikki circled around to the passenger side and stepped up inside, supple leather warming her. Heated seats? An awesome feature she hadn't been able to afford in her little econo-truck currently on its way to a garage for a set of tires she was hard-pressed to finance. "You can wipe that disapproving look off your face."
Scowl showing no signs of fading, Carson eased his foot off the brake. "He's twice your size and a thug. This so-called 'look on my face' is totally justified."
"Appearances are deceiving." She instinctively defended her student as Carson drove from the lot. "He's a kid who's had a tough start and doesn't stand a chance at making anything of his life if he doesn't get extra help. It's frighteningly easy for a child with problems or special needs to go unnoticed."
He went silent at that for two traffic lights, stopped at the next before turning to her. "What happened to make him fall behind?"
"Dyslexia, which is especially tough to diagnose in a kid with a gifted IQ. He's smart, really smart, which helped him skate by for years with average grades. Add frequent military moves into the mix and it was easy for him to fall through the cracks."