She searched her mind to recapture the faces that had been in the bar around her, all people she knew and simply accepted as part of her world. Why hadn't she paid more attention to details?
Okay, think. In addition to the crew sitting down for an after-flight meal, she'd seen Claire McDermott subbing for the bartender with her co-owner two sisters on hand waitressing. Hadn't one of them even dated Gary briefly? Which one?
She would call David Reis the minute she got home and tell him what little she could recall. Although he'd most certainly already interviewed everyone there that night, which made her feel exposed all over again, thinking of so many of her military friends knowing the details.
Damn it, she hadn't done anything wrong—that she knew of. She gave up recapturing the moment in the churning water and shifted her focus back to Carson, his face tipped upward to... Gauge the sail? The sun? Simply feel the wind?
She couldn't ignore the appeal of his strong features, the way his broad shoulders and lean h*ps turned her on and inside out all at once. What was it about him that called to her at a time when she shouldn't have been able to think about anything but the blind panic of clearing her name? He was good-looking, sure, in a preppy privileged kind of way that had never snagged her interest before she'd seen him for the first time and suddenly that had become her type for forever after, even if everyone else fell short.
As if sensing her stare, Carson looked down and over at her. His eyes narrowed. "What's with the frown, lady? Quit thinking so hard. Get back to your daydreaming."
She pulled a breezy salute. "Aye-aye, Major. Or would that be Captain since we're on your ship?"
"Either's fine as long as you smile."
Good advice, she knew. And wouldn't it be nice to settle into the circle of his arms, her back against his chest as they sailed the day away? Just the wind and sun and feel of his muscled chest.
Unbidden and unwelcome, a snippet from the memory flashed, of Gary's chest, that favored belt buckle of his biting into her spine....
Her mind hitched on the notion of Gary's belt, the one he'd been wearing the night he'd died. Or had he? She could swear there hadn't been a belt in his pants down around his ankles and she couldn't recall the security police having found one when they looked around the room while questioning her.
Blinking out of the fractured memory and into the streaming sunlight, she couldn't remember any more from that night. But she had one important question to answer.
Where was Gary's belt?
Where was his head?
Sure as hell not in the job.
After a boring commander's lunch, Carson tossed his leather jacket over the brass anchor peg in his office on his last Monday as commander. The rest of the squadron was due back Friday and he could resume his regular job as the number two dude. He would be flying more again, but Nikki would have her dad back in town to check on her until Reis got his head out of his butt and figured out what happened to Owens.
And what would J.T. have to say about the time Carson had been spending with Nikki?
Their day sailing together had been good. Damn good, but he wanted to make sure he was a better man now so he didn't screw up his life again, or more importantly, didn't do anything to harm hers.
Tucking around his desk, he hooked a boot in the chair to roll it back while snagging a stack of performance reports off the top of his file cabinet. At least her memory was starting to trickle back. A missing belt wasn't much, yet remembering anything was a hopeful sign she might recall more. But if those memories revealed she'd killed Owens? Carson was certain she would have only done so in self-defense, which would put her in the clear legally.
All of which still didn't help him decide how to handle the next five days with Nikki.
He reached for the phone to check in with Reis about the security camera footage of the high school parking lot, only to be stopped short by a tap on the open office door. He glanced over to find Captain Nola Seabrook standing in the entryway. "What can I do for you?"
"Sir, I need to schedule a tactics class." The crisp blond officer stood at attention, even though Carson ran a more relaxed squadron than other commanders. "Is Wednesday at fourteen-hundred okay?"
"Wednesday?" He flipped though his day planner. "Uh... no. I've already scheduled confession for that time."
"Flight safety meeting." He lapsed into his best Irish accent. "It's always better for the flyers to confess than have their sins pointed out by the bishop."
Laughing, she lost the starch in her spine. "Fair enough. How about we schedule the tactics meeting to follow when they're all softened up?"
"Roger." He nodded. "Spread the word."
Pivoting away, she ran smack into another person already waiting. Seabrook laughed. "Guess we need to take a number to talk with the major today."
"Apparently so," answered his surprise visitor—Vic Jansen.
What was he doing here? Was it family business since his sister was married to one of the deployed flyers? Or personal, since Vic belonged to A.A., too.
Carson nodded to Seabrook. "That'll be all, Captain. And could you let my secretary know to hold calls for the next twenty minutes? Thanks."
Vic ducked into the room, a blond lumberjack-looking fella in flannel. The somber guy had lost his daughter in a drowning accident years ago, but recently started with the program because he feared he was reaching for a bottle too often.
"What brings you here?"
"Just dropping my sister off at the commissary. Since I had time to kill while she shops, I thought I would stop by, shoot the breeze if you have a free minute."
Carson rolled his office chair back an inch from the desk. "Sure," he said, even though he really didn't have twenty seconds to spare, much less twenty minutes. But something was obviously on Vic's mind and part of the program involved helping each other out. "What can I do for you?"
"Actually, I was wondering if everything's okay with you?" Jansen dropped into a seat across from the desk, blue eyes piercing.
The guy had seen him with Nikki yesterday, but that wouldn't be cause to ask if he was all right. Although pursuing this friendship with Nikki could well be termed insanity. "Why do you ask?"
"It's been a rough couple of months around the squadron with the extra duties overseas and now Owens's death," Jansen answered, his Dakota roots filling his rolling accent. "It's a tough time to be the king."
Ah, now the visit made sense. And damn, but the guy had a point. There weren't many people around this place Carson could talk to—none for that matter. But the A. A. bond of trust and confidentiality was a cornerstone. Solid.
"I could use some advice." The words fell out of his mouth.
"Hell, Carson, are you sure you want my advice? My track record sucks, don'tcha know." It was no secret that Jansen's wife had divorced him after the death of their daughter. But from what Carson could gather it sounded as if the woman's defection had been heartless, occurring before Jansen started drinking.
"I'll take any help I can get."
"Ah, so you want to romance Nikki Price."
"Who said we're talking about Nikki?"
"Last time I checked, they don't let morons graduate from veterinary school." The rugged large animal vet smirked.
Searching for the right words for thoughts he didn't even understand, he scooped up a miniature porthole clock from his desk and checked the battery, which of course was working just fine.
"Nikki and I have this—" tenacious attraction? "—bizarre friendship that seems to defy the whole twelve year age difference. I want to understand her."
"Good-freaking luck." Snorting, Vic hooked an ankle over his knee, work boot twitching. "If you figure women out, make sure you copyright the knowledge so you can retire a millionaire."
"I'm serious here." He thunked the tiny clock back on top of the stack of performance reports. "God, how do I explain this?"
"You like a woman as more than a friend, and she likes you back."
Might as well quit lying to everyone including himself. "So it seems."
"But the problem is...?"
"Problems. Plural. We tried things once before and I screwed it up." He ticked reasons off a finger at a time. "Her family would disapprove. I'm not sure I'm husband material and she definitely deserves it all."
"Whoa." Vic held up his work-scarred hands. "You're already using the M word. I thought you were talking about liking a woman and asking her out on a date. Don't you think you're jumping ahead of yourself?"
Didn't people date to see if something more would develop? And when a woman was obviously the happily-ever-after sort, wasn't it leading her on to date when he knew full well it wouldn't lead anywhere beyond a bed? Okay, so he was old-fashioned. He couldn't help it, probably went along with his tapioca pudding mentality.
"Did you apologize for what you did before, the time you screwed it up?"
"Have you done something to make up for it?"
Amends. A critical part of the twelve-step program, but also keeping in mind not to press for forgiveness if the action hurt that person worse. "I'm not sure I could make this one right."
"Did you try? Even if something can't be fixed, there's comfort in knowing the other person tried."
"I've been looking out for her, checking her security. Nikki's in a helluva vulnerable state."
"It must be tough for her to be so helpless."
"Nikki's a tough lady," Carson answered without even thinking—then stopped, the words and their truth kicking around in his head for a second before settling.
Why hadn't he realized it before? Sure Nikki had been dealt a raw deal right now, but he needed to stop viewing her as a victim. Had he done so as a convenient excuse to keep his distance?
He needed to quit thinking he was protecting her by ignoring the attraction, the connection. Not that he'd been all that successful. Relationships were a lot tougher to achieve than any Ivy League diploma on his wall.
Was he really considering asking her out on dates? Forget the age difference? Her father's objections. His own concerns about his ability to be an equal partner. A hefty dose of cons.
And only one reason in the pro column, a reason he couldn't even quite define. Something as nebulous as the way the wind in sails and the clouds against a windscreen soothed his soul. "You're right."
"Of course. No morons around here, remember?"
"We can only hope." He rocked back in his office chair. "Any suggestions for how I should make things right so I have a chance at moving forward?"
Jansen leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "There's no secret answer other than every woman is different. Quit trying to charge ahead with what you think she needs and just listen."
Another A.A. technique he should have figured out for himself.
Flipping his wrist to check his watch, Jansen winced. "I gotta make tracks." He shoved to his feet. "Give me a call anytime. Okay?"
Jansen paused by the door. "Hey, Carson?"
"Good luck." The lumbering vet smirked.
"I'm going to need it figuring this lady out."
"That isn't what I meant." Jansen shook his head slowly. "I meant good luck, because Nikki Price's father is totally going to kick your officer ass."
Great. Just what every guy wanted to hear as he reached for the phone to call a woman.
* * *
Nikki strode along the wooden walkway toward Beachcombers chanting, "Idiot, idiot, idiot..." But a curiously excited idiot.