There she went again, being so trusting when he deserved to crawl for what he'd done. He certainly deserved more wariness. All he'd offered her were a couple of unsavory facts from his childhood.
He took her hand, a strong hand with short nails and impossibly soft skin he remembered, too. His memory flamed with their out-of-control kiss at his door, her hands tunneling up under his shirt, gliding her softness over him at a time when raw pain heated him from the inside out. He owed her so damn much.
Carson held her hand tighter as she stepped on the rocking hull, palmed her waist for the final boost. She looked so right there he wondered why he'd never thought to bring her before.
"Catch." He pitched the rope to her, leaped aboard and finished launching from the dock.
Already the familiar roll of the waves rocking beneath soothed his soul like a cradle in motion shooshes a baby. He took his place behind the wheel, firing the small motor to power them out of the narrow channel, Nikki an arm's reach away, trailing her fingers in the light spray.
She pulled her hand out. "Are you doing this today for my dad, too?"
"What part of 'trust me' did you not understand?"
She flicked her damp fingers, showering an icy spray on his face. "Just joking."
Laughing, he leaned low and popped in the CD he'd bought this morning once he'd realized he would be detouring to her parents' house. He cranked the volume as the best of the 1940's spun up some "Bing" along with the percussion of the waves against the hull.
"Oh, you're playing dirty today."
"Gotta work with what you've got." He revved the motor to clear the channel without creating too large a wake to damage the shore.
The croon of the engine and slosh of waves mixed with Nikki's off-key croonings that somehow took on a musical-ity all their own.
After they finished the final bite of apple pie, she glanced over at him. "Thank you. This is really nice."
"I've missed running into you."
"Missed me showing up all the time, you mean?" She tipped her face into the sun. "God, I can hardly believe now how obvious I must have been with that mega embarrassing crush I had on you."
Had. Past tense.
Of course he'd known, and done his best to treat her like a little sister—except for one major lapse. He should have kept well away all the time, but God, she was charming.
He cut the motor, ready to switch to sail power. In a minute. After he had the answer to one more question he had to know now. "What do you think we would have done today if I hadn't screwed everything up then?"
"Hmm. You would have asked me to come along and I would have pretended it was no big deal. So we would have been doing the same thing, except now we're both coming into this with no expectations and being totally true to who we are. And speaking of being totally me, do you mind waiting a few more minutes to set sail?"
"Whatever works for you. This day is about you relaxing."
"Sometimes there's nothing more relaxing than getting your heart racing."
Heart racing? She couldn't actually mean what his body hoped she meant even if his mind knew better. She'd just said she was over her crush on him.
Before he could reason through the maze of her words, she'd jumped from her seat and clambered over to the main mast.
Those long legs of hers in jeans and strong arms in his windbreaker shimmied her higher, her ponytail swaying from the back of her ball cap. He'd done the same countless times, but this was different. Enticingly different. He held the wheel and watched her stare out over the scenery, gasp in air, totally in the moment.
Sunlight streamed down over her. No makeup. No jewelry. But plenty of bling just from...her.
Bling and Bing. Modern but timeless, with a breezy sophistication in her old-soul self. He was toast.
So for the moment he surrendered and simply enjoyed the view of her slim body, the sweet curve of her bottom so perfectly on display. Sensory memory returned of gripping her taut roundness as he rolled her beneath him...
Who knew how much time he spent staring at her before she inched her way back down again and settled in a seat beside him. "Wow, the view from there is amazing."
Amazing. Yeah. That summed her up. "You scared the crap out of me, but that's one helluva pole dance, lady."
She threw her head back in her full-out laugh, so much more "real" than anything he could ever remember hearing or seeing in the affected world of his parents' social whirl. He raised the nylon sails, easing out the line bit by bit, savoring the increasing pull on his muscles.
Nikki shaded her eyes with her hand. "Do you need help?"
"I'll let you know. For now, just enjoy the ride."
Too bad he couldn't seem to take his own advice around this woman.
Her eyes full of sun, sail and sky, Nikki lounged along the cushioned seat while Carson manned the wheel like a Viking captain of old, making minor adjustments while the star-burst-patterned nylon billowed. Why hadn't he named his boat? He obviously loved this vessel, and she could understand why.
Sailing offered a secluded slice of heaven.
He'd been right to bring her here. Tension from the investigation eased, even while another tension altogether kinked as she felt herself drawn in again by this man.
Except before, she never would have done something as impulsive and undignified as climb a mast while he could see her. How strange to realize that in those days she hadn't been true to herself. She hadn't shown him the total picture of Nikki Price. Or had she tried to morph herself into what she thought he wanted?
The craft picked up speed along the waves, biting through the wind like a plane cutting through the clouds. She imagined he looked much the same at the helm of his C-17. "If you love the water so much, why didn't you join the Navy?"
Feet planted and braced, his thigh muscles bulged against worn denim. "I didn't much like the idea of six months out on ship duty every year. Besides, the water's my hobby, my way of relaxing. If I turn it into work, I might lose that."
"Such as how I enjoy sports and running, but didn't want to be a gym teacher."
"Exactly." A gull winged low, dipping for supper in the comfortable silence before he picked up the conversational thread again. "Have you sailed much?"
"Nope. This is my first time."
The wheel slithered through his shocked-slack fingers before he secured his grip again and redirected the bow. "You crawled up there blind? What if it hadn't been safe? Good God, haven't you pitched off enough high places into water for one month?"
His concern was more than a little touching. She brushed a reassuring hand over his thigh—whoa baby. She pulled her arm back. "You would have told me to stop."
"You're trusting me too easily."
"That's just my body, not my heart, pal. Two very different matters."
At least he had the grace to look away. "So this is your first boating trip."
"It's my first sailing outing, but I've been boating. My family camped a lot growing up. Dad had a little John boat." She'd forgotten about those outings until now, and took comfort from knowing her childhood hadn't been all about her parents' arguments. "He pulled it behind that old truck he still drives. I swear he'll be driving that same truck when he takes Jamie and the new baby off to college."
"Are you okay with these new additions to your family?" Alongside, a fish jumped and plopped.
"I'm a little old for sibling rivalry, don't you think?"
"Feelings aren't always reasonable."
She'd never even considered it, but searched her heart and came up with... "I feel more like their aunt than a sister, which makes me a little sad. But Mom and Dad are a lot stronger as a couple this go-round. The kids will have everything they need and more. Actually, since Dad's coming up on retirement in less than five years, he'll be pulling cupcake duty for elementary birthday parties while Mom works."
"Now that's an image guaranteed to spread grins around the squadron, a crusty old loadmaster stirring up a batch of frosting with sprinkles."
"I'll try to slip you some pictures."
His laugh rolled out over the cresting waves rippling toward one of the ka-jillion small historic battlefield parks throughout the Charleston area. "So you really are okay with the new rug rat siblings."
"Totally. They're gonna have a great life. Don't get me wrong, Chris and I had a good childhood in so many ways, but for these children, things will be more stable."
He set the autopilot and shifted to stand beside her, leaning back against the side. "So when your dad says no flyboys for his little girl, it's a sentiment you echo."
"That would be strange since I've spent so much time dating flyers." Was he only making idle conversation? Tough to think and decide with his body heat blasting.
"I figured it was a rebellion thing against your father."
No way was she confessing to her real reason for her recent run of flyboy dates who happened to have preppy blond good looks.
She shifted her attention to the boats in the distance and the ones remaining in the faraway dock by Beachcombers. More familiar memories of the place flooded her brain, stuffed fish peering down from over windows with glass eyeballs and slack jaws. Netting full of shells, sand dollars and coral stretched across the wall. Small lanterns rested on each wooden picnic table, the smoky blue glass letting little light flicker through, more mood setting than illuminating.
Nothing new, yet she still clung to every detail, searching for a hidden clue in the place where she'd run into Carson last week while waiting for Gary...
"Hey, babe," Gary's greeting jolted through Nikki a second before he leaned an elbow on the bar and kissed her neck.
She ducked to the side with the help of the spinning bar stool. "I was starting to wonder if you'd stood me up."
"Never." He tapped her nearly empty amaretto sour. "Could I get you another drink?"
The press of bodies stifled her. She wanted space. She wanted to go home.
But first she had to tell him what little relationship they'd had was over. "Two's my limit since I'm driving. I'll take some plain orange juice."
"You've got it." He angled over her shoulder to place the order, his chest sealing against her back until she could feel the imprint of his favorite belt buckle against her spine—a cold metal buckle shaped like an overlarge casino coin.
And the imprint of more steel, lower down.
Nikki hopped off the bar stool. "Let's find somewhere quiet to talk."
In public, but not right beside a table full of her father's fly buddies—Picasso, Mako and the new guy in the squadron, Avery, who she'd also dated a couple of times.
"Sure, just what I was thinking." Gary fell in step alongside her, then stopped, skimming a touch along her arm.
"Wait. You almost forgot your orange juice. Hold on and I'll go back and get your drink for you..."
"Nikki?" Carson's voice sliced through her memories like the hull slicing the waves.
"Yeah, uh right. Just daydreaming." Nikki clutched the side of the sailboat as if she could hold on to the memories already slipping away faster than the dispersing wake.
"Go right ahead." He shoved away from the side with muscle-rippling ease and a smile, closer. "This day's all about relaxing."
Even with the warmth of the sun on her face and her thick windbreaker protecting her from the misty spray, she rubbed her hands along her chilled arms, a deeper cold settling inside her at even the whisper of memory that helped her with nothing, except to hint further that Gary may have drugged her. He'd certainly had the opportunity. But hadn't she forgotten things from before he brought her drink? The effects of Rohypnol varied from person to person, with so many other variables factored in.