She'd looked forward to this outing since Carson called her yesterday and asked her to lunch. His invitation had quickly distracted her from the disappointment of learning the surveillance cameras at the school had been angled wrong to catch any helpful information about the vandalism to her little track.
The planked path forked, one way snaking to the back bar and marina, the other route leading to the front entrance of the restaurant where she was not going on a date. Just meeting Carson at Beachcombers for a meal to help joggle more memories free. Regardless, thanks to a new set of tires on her Ranger providing transportation, she now stood outside Beachcombers.
She tromped up the steps to the sprawling wraparound porch that usually buzzed with conversation from the diners, but sported only sparse smokers in the cooler climate. Her stomach cramped with nerves, even more from the prospect of seeing Carson.
Pushing through the heavy door, she searched the crush of people in the wide hallway, a waiting area complete with gift shop stalls and cubbies. She weaved through the melee, the lunch crowd mirroring the weekend gang, but with a subdued workday air.
For the first time, she noticed the wide age range. She'd always been so focused on her friends—and yeah, the fly-boys—she hadn't noticed how many retirees frequented the place, as well. Were they around on the weekends, too? She would have to pay closer attention.
Flipping her wrist, she glanced at her Minnie Mouse watch. The second hand clicked past Minnie's glove.
Fifteen minutes early.
So much for appearing blasé. But she wasn't into game playing this go-round. She would be herself, totally—mast climbing, sarcophagus building, notoriously early Nikki Price.
Still no sign of Carson, but any number of crises at the squadron could have delayed him. She refused to turn into a quivering mass. He wouldn't be that important to her ever again.
Still, nerves whipped around in her stomach faster than Minnie's second hand. Nikki fidgeted with the new gift shop items filling shelves along the waiting area walls—handpainted T-shirts, seashell ornaments with Charleston's historic Rainbow Row inked
in miniature. She mentally filed away craft ideas for her classroom during local history week. Her gaze settled on glazed sand dollars sporting a sticker of a C-17—the cargo plane flown by Carson.
Sheesh. Everything didn't have to be about Carson. Her dad and countless friends flew that same craft.
"May I help you with something?"
Nikki jolted and looked over her shoulder to find Beachcombers' proprietor, Claire McDermott. "Did you design these?"
Claire neatened the hanging racks of stenciled canvas bags in perfect descending order of largest to smallest. "My sister Starr did. I do most of the cooking, but we're short staffed out front today, so here I am. Our other sister handles the bookkeeping." She straightened her apron on curvy h*ps Nikki had finally given up on ever developing by the end of high school. "It's a family effort we hope will pay off."
"From the crush today, it sure seems so."
No wonder Carson with his lack of family connection ate here so often, even moored his boat in the area. She wondered if that might be why he'd spent time with her before, because she came with a family. And man that sucked, wondering if you were liked because of your parents and brother. Or if he preferred curvy types like Claire.
Nikki stomped down feelings and thoughts that too closely resembled the insecure idiot she'd been over Carson months before. The present carried enough problems.
She could see the questions in Claire's eyes that she was too polite to ask about what happened a week ago. The woman had to be frustrated at even the least association with the scandal.. .yet the place was buzzing with activity. Sometimes bad press could be better for business than no press at all.
Claire's attention shifted beyond her. Bustling around the counter with brisk efficiency, she passed Nikki a pamphlet. "Here's a list of our upcoming performers in the bar, and don't miss the discount coupons on the bottom."
The woman disappeared into the milling customers, emerging on the other side near two men who seemed familiar...
Nikki shook her hands loose trying to relax for a memory to shimmer free. The shorter man wore a backward baseball cap and sports jersey. The other man loomed taller and burly in a plaid shirt.
The image gelled in her brain. Both men had met up with Carson that night out in the parking lot. Ball-cap dude, she didn't know. But the man in the plaid shirt was Bo Rokowsky's brother-in-law. What was the guy's name? Vic something-or-another.
A tingling started up her spine, a shift in the air, an awareness that Carson had arrived even though she hadn't seen him yet and no, no, no she didn't want that kind of surreal connection.
Maybe the feeling was—
There he was. Carson. Tall, slim and golden blond, his tan deep from a lifetime outside. She wished she could remember his tan line, but there had been covers by that point.
Whoops. Dangerous territory for her thoughts, especially in public. She glanced back up to his lean face, features angular and tense, phone pressed to his ear while he searched the crowd for...
Dimples creased—because of her. He nodded his hello from across the room as he continued to speak into his phone and make his way toward her. The tingle increased to an all-over body flush. Just a casual get-together?
She wasn't fooling anybody, most especially herself.
Only a fool would risk going out with this woman, but Carson had learned long ago, the word fit for him every time he came near Nikki.
Except he wouldn't sacrifice common sense and safety even though the whole meal had tempted him to toss both out the back hatch. At least they'd accomplished something at lunch, compiling a joint list of people they remembered Owens hanging out with, hoping they would recall something overlooked initially.
He'd insisted on following her home even though, yeah, she'd driven over on her own. Maybe he simply wanted their time together to last longer and it really wasn't that far out of his way. Lunch with her had been so natural and easy, too natural. In the past there had been the boundary of her crush, something that most definitely put him in an older man role. Now they met on more equal footing, even though she wore a Minnie Mouse watch that for some reason he found endearing as hell.
Slowing outside the Price home, he pulled up on the curb behind her car, a perfect reminder of those slashed tires. No matter how tough and toned she appeared, she was still vulnerable to creeps who drugged drinks and tore her clothes.
The urge to protect pumped through his veins, thrummed in his ears, damn near blinding him. He could tell himself all day long to ease off the protector role because Nikki was strong, but in practice, she meant too much to him for him to be anywhere but by her side.
He blinked his vision clear and stepped from his truck just as she slid from hers, one slim leg at a time. Jeans never looked so good slung low on her slim hips, her jacket open to reveal a fuzzy sweater, bottom button undone to reveal a hint of skin.
Carson met her at her open truck door. "I'm sorry I was late for our lunch."
"You weren't late." She gripped the open door, Minnie Mouse waving from her wrist. "I was early, and I know things are insane at the squadron right now."
"Well, I wish I could have picked you up. Next time..."
Wind rustled pine needles from the trees overhead and lifted her hair while she chewed her lip and finally released the kissable fullness, slowly. "Next time."
There would be a next time.
He covered her hand with his on the open door. "No new memories today?"
"Spotty stuff, mostly of when you and I talked." She scuffed her shoe through the dead grass, drawing his attention to her jean-clad legs—as if he needed an excuse. "I, uh, watched you walk away and meet up with two other guys."
Vic Jansen and Gary Owens's sponsor, on their way to a support meeting for families of addicts, not just alcoholics, but a catchall group. He couldn't tell her that, though, without breaking confidence. "Do you remember anything else?"
"Not really. It never works when I want it too much." Her gray eyes clouded, seeming wider when she didn't blink, just studied him until he wondered if they were still discussing lost hours a week ago.
"Then let's stop forcing the issue." He circled a finger along Minnie, then around to Nikki's wrist. "You said relaxing helps, so just let things happen."
Although a relaxed Nikki might be more temptation than he could handle.
"Okay, I have a question that's really been plaguing me." Her eyebrows pinched together with serious intensity that set him on edge.
"Sure, go ahead."
She tipped her head to the side, her hair teasing along his wrist. "Why haven't you named your boat yet?"
Tension rode out along his laugh. Relax. Right. Linking his fingers with hers, he slid their hands off the door into a true clasp rather than the sort-of-resting-here deal.
Tugging her forward, he reached past to close her door. "Naming a boat is like naming a new aviator."
"What do you mean?" She kept her hand in his.
And so damn right he didn't let go.
"Well, for example, Lieutenant Avery is bucking for a call sign to replace Bambi, but we've got to wait for the watershed event."
"Like your flaming Dr Pepper moment when you scorched your mustache in a bar."
Now there was a splash of reality. "Exactly. A watershed event that sums up a person."
As if sensing his darkening mood, she stepped away even if she didn't release his hand. "I imagine you need to get back to the squadron."
"I've got another minute." He should have returned a half hour ago to tackle rewrites on performance reports and promotion recommendations, review and sign check-ride forms, all before the Wing Staff meeting at fifteen hundred.
He wasn't sure what he was doing standing here with Nikki. Even if he could see his way clear to risking a more serious relationship, he was scared spitless of marriage, and he couldn't even wrap his head around the whole father-kid deal. He could almost hear Vic Jansen laughing at him again since he kept gravitating right back to commitment thoughts.
One day at a time.
"Would you like to go boating again this weekend? Your dad will be home to look after your mom." And holy hell, he would somehow have to explain to J. T. Price why he was seeing the man's daughter when the guy expressly didn't want flyboys for his baby girl. No doubt, Ivy League, officer fly-boys would fall even lower down the list for the practical values of the crusty chief master sergeant.
Carson stroked his missing mustache. He would just have to get the guy alone and ease the news into the conversation.
They had a mutual respect for each other from shared crew experiences and POW hell.
"Boating?" Nikki asked, bringing him back to the moment.
Before he worried about talking to J.T., Nikki needed to agree.
"My plate will be clearer. We could moor up in a cove for lunch, maybe go ashore and backpack around for the day."
Her hand stilled, frozen like her blanked face. "Go boating to relax and take my mind off of Owens and my pathetic employment situation?"
"To spend time together. If that's okay."
Slack jawed for a painfully long second, she blinked fast. "Yeah, I think it is. As a matter of fact I'm sure it is." Her grin widened. "Although this time it's my turn to bring the food."
He liked the idea of her feeding him, him feeding her back, on the bow of his boat in the middle of the summer in a secluded bay where they could soak up the sun and each other....
Time to pull his mind off that fantasy, awesome though it was. And what was he doing having summer thoughts, months away? What had happened to taking things with Nikki one day at a time?