"He's a genius with some kind of disability?"
"It's not as unlikely as you would think. One in three mentally gifted children has some kind of learning disability. The numbers could actually be higher since it's easy for schools to miss out on diagnosing the gifted dyslexic, especially when they're surprised a kid from his background is even passing at all."
"I wouldn't have thought about it that way. It sucks to think how many students could get lost in the system based on misconceptions."
He was being more insightful on the subject than she'd expected. Perhaps she'd been a little quick to judge him based on his silver-spoon background. "There are complexities to the levels and every dyslexic student is different. Basically, we figure out ways to send the information through another channel of the brain, usually a multisensory approach."
"For example?" he asked, seeming genuinely interested rather than merely making polite conversation.
That was more enticing than a surprise peek at his pecs. Well, almost.
"I have younger students trace spelling words in corn meal with a finger."
"Why not have all students do it that way? Sounds a helluva lot more fun than gripping a pencil until your fingers go numb."
He flashed a killer smile her way, sun reflecting off his aviator shades, darn near blinding her with the vibrancy. "Where were you when I was drilling spelling words? Wait." He thumped his head. "You weren't born yet."
"Are we beating that dead horse today?"
"With your vintage music fixation and my tapioca pudding, maybe we're not so far apart in age after all.
Something dangerous fluttered to life in her empty stomach. "Took you long enough to figure that one out."
"Too late, I'm guessing."
Was he regretting that? Hinting for something now? And sheesh, but she hated how even thinking it flipped her hungry stomach around. Not gonna go that route again. "Seems so."
"At least I can take comfort in knowing I'm not a COG."
"Creepy Old Guy."
Not by a long shot. She chewed the lip gloss off her suddenly aching lips. "Thanks for the ride and for showing up so soon, but where's Chris?"
"I was at your mother's when you called so I offered to come instead rather than waste time trying to track down your brother."
"Oh." That threw her for a second. Her stomach was in serious peril. "Uh, why? Anything wrong?"
So why had he been there? She waited. And waited. "Thanks for coming out."
"Good thing, too. Probably didn't hurt for those students to see a man in your life."
"This is not your problem."
"I'm a male. I can't ignore it."
"I'm careful. I'm never alone with a student. Teachers are given training on just this subject for our protection and the students'. That's a part of why I always tutor on school property."
"All right. But I'm still picking you up until we find out what went on with Owens."
How silly to argue. She'd had the same concerns today. Her mother was confined to the house. Her brother was in and out of town visiting his girlfriend during college winter break.
And she couldn't hide from the truth. She wanted to be around Carson if for no other reason than to figure out a way to forget him as completely as she'd forgotten that night last week. "Since I don't have tires, I gratefully accept. For now."
"Thank you. And you'll be careful around that kid you're tutoring?"
Of course she would, but wondered at Carson's continued insistence. "You don't trust anyone, do you?"
"This isn't about me."
"I think it just became about you." She hitched a knee up to turn and face him even as he kept his eyes forward on the road. "You say you want to apologize, and sure you're helping. But I'm still confused. Can we only relate if things are about me? When does it become about you, too? Otherwise this is a one-sided, um, friendship—" yeah, friendship was a good word "—that's not fair to either of us."
His hands tightened around the wheel and she thought for a while he would simply keep driving until he whipped into the next turn. At a fast-food parking lot?
He threw the truck in park and turned to face her. "My parents were drug addicts."
Huh? That was a little more than she'd expected. She was thinking more along the lines of... What? She didn't know much of anything about him, and she wouldn't know more if she didn't unglue her tongue from the roof of her mouth and participate in this conversation. "I thought you said you had a privileged upbringing."
"I said my family has money."
"Guess I'm just as guilty of making character assumptions as you were with 'Thug.'" She couldn't stop herself from placing a sympathetic hand on his forearm. "I'm sorry—for the assumption and for how difficult your childhood must have been."
His quick nod offered his only acknowledgment of her empathy. With a brief squeeze of comfort she took her hand back, the heat of him tingling through her veins until she clenched her fist to hold on to the sensation. Already she could piece together parts he'd left unsaid, how no one thought to suspect anything, which left Carson and his sister unprotected.
Carson cut a quick glance over. "You can ease up a little on the sympathy. My sister and I went to great schools, and thank God for the nannies or things would have been a helluva lot worse."
"Somehow I think it was plenty bad enough." She shuffled this new image of Carson around in her mind and couldn't help but soften. "Where are your parents now?"
"Dad almost died of an overdose about two years ago." He recited the information in emotionless monotones. "Some thought that would scare him clean, he even tried. They've both been in and out of rehab clinics a dozen times and it never seemed to stick. Bottom line, I don't think either of them wants to change."
The resigned acceptance in his voice stabbed through her.
He kept his face forward even though their parking spot under the golden arches enabled him to look wherever he wished. "So, no. I don't trust easily."
Yet she couldn't miss how he'd trusted her today with a piece of himself and his past she suspected very few—if any—knew about.
"Enough heavy crap for one day." He reached for the door. "I hope burgers are okay."
"Burgers. As in lunch, with some salty fries and a couple of apple pies. I assume you haven't eaten yet."
"We'll get them to go."
"And where are we going with these burgers?"
He smiled. "Trust me." God help her, she did.
Trust was a tricky thing. Much easier to live up to than to give.
Carson parked his truck in the marina lot, more than a little humbled by how easily Nikki had gone along with his mystery plan. Although given the wariness creeping into her clear gray eyes as she looked across the line of bobbing boats down to Beachcombers Bar and Grill, she seemed ready to revoke her easy compliance.
"My sailboat's docked here now that I invested in something larger," he explained.
"Oh. Right. I thought for a minute you planned to wrangle some memories out of me and honestly, I've found that forcing it doesn't work." She sagged against the seat, staring out toward the bar with a melancholy weariness staining her eyes. "They always sneak up on me best when I'm not expecting anything."
"You're starting to remember what happened with Owens?"
She turned her head on the seat toward him. "Almost right away actually, I've gotten these smattering bits and pieces that may or may not be helpful. I shared everything with Agent Reis, for what it's worth. I even let Mom contact a hypnotist colleague from work, but I never could get past thinking what an ugly watch he was using for a focus point."
"Scared to death."
"Thank you for trusting me today." He wanted to say more, but knew better than to let things get any deeper and thereby ruin the afternoon. "Come on. I don't have lazy days much anymore and I intend to enjoy the hell out of this one."
Reaching into the back, he grabbed an extra windbreaker and tossed it to Nikki before snatching up their fast-food bags. Seemed she needed this day out on the water even more than he did. He couldn't help but think how in the past he would have offered a woman a more romantic meal such as croissants, fruit—mimosas.
Except he'd left behind his days of setting his mustache on fire with a flaming bar drink. His call sign 'Scorch' may have stuck, but his party ways were long gone. He just hoped the burgers and sodas he had to offer now would be enough.
Even on the chilly winter day, the marina hummed with activity. No one swam in the frigid waters, but plenty perched on boat decks and along the docks wearing downy wind-breakers and cinched hoods, fishing off the pier or lounging on a bow. Carson searched the faces, wondering how many of them may have been at Beachcombers that night. Damn it, why couldn't he remember who he'd seen on his way to pick up his barbecue wings?
He'd been so hell-bent on getting out of there, the scent of whiskey and rum taking him to dangerous mental places. Then once he'd seen Nikki, he hadn't been looking at anyone else. He'd been tempted to hang out and talk to her as he'd done too often in the past. Since he'd been so tempted, he'd hauled ass away as fast as possible.
Guilt hammered him like the rogue swing of a boat boom. If he'd stayed around, maybe he could have prevented what happened. Owens would be alive. Nikki's life would be normal—and he would still be dodging her.
Wouldn't he? His fist tightened around the sack of burgers, which made him think of those brown-sugar-rich wings and that night all over again, not to mention another time he'd tasted hints of the sugary sauce while kissing Nikki after their friends' wedding.
Jesus, he really was in a crapload of trouble if he could remember who catered a wedding seven months ago. His feet thudded down the planked dock, past everything from a tiny Hobie catamaran manned by two teens in wet suits to a Beneteau yacht with jeweled partiers, toward his thirty-one-foot Catalina, a bargain bought used. Good thing boats didn't age like cars.
Without stopping, which would invite conversation and gossip, he waved at the crowded deck on the Dakota-Rat, a sailboat owned by Vic Jansen, the brother-in-law of fellow crew member Bo Rokowsky. The Rokowsky family outing resembled nothing from Carson's past but exactly the sort he'd wanted right down to the little blond kid with pigtails and a wife.
Except there was an empty space in the family since Bo was deployed.
Nikki shouted a greeting out over the water which would no doubt start the rumor mill churning at the squadron. He should have thought about that.
Maybe other people would have stepped in to help her if he hadn't preempted everyone else. Was he keeping her from something better on a personal level, too? She should have a houseful of children. She was a helluva teacher. He'd bet she would be an amazing mother, much like her own.
And she would. With some lucky bastard he didn't want to think about. Someday. Later. After he got her through this nightmarish time in her life safely.
"I brought you here to relax, but I didn't think about Beachcombers being so close. If it's a problem we can leave."
He stopped beside his boat slip, considering something else he could do to fill the day, kicking himself for assuming she would enjoy sailing as much as he did.
"No, really. It's all right. If I hid from every reminder of this whole mess, I would never go anywhere." She extended her hand. "Help me aboard?"