The rumble of an engine drew closer. Hair rose on the back of his neck. The neighborhood seemed sleepy and safe, but less than two years ago, Nikki's brother had a run-in with the law that brought threats from drug runners...a drive-by wreck and later a brick through the window.
He gripped Nikki's elbow. "I'll walk you to your door."
And check the security system for the umpteenth time.
The approaching vehicle slowed, a nondescript sedan. Carson hustled her faster up the walk. Once he got her inside, then he would deal with any problem, if there was one. The car stopped.
Agent Reis was behind the wheel.
What was he doing here? He couldn't be about to arrest her. No, no, and hell no.
The primal drive to protect—already on high alert—seared his nerves. He suppressed the urge to do more than tuck her away in the house. He burned to toss her in his truck and take her as far away as possible from any and every threat. God knew he had the money.
Nikki stepped around him and started down the walkway, toward Reis, so strong and resolute it damn near tore him up inside. She had a calm bravery under stress that would serve her well in combat.
He just prayed she wasn't about to enter the zone.
Reis tightened his tie, his coat flapping behind him as he charged up the curb. Sunglasses masked his expression, not that the man gave much away with full face showing. He extended a hand. "Major. Ms. Price. Glad I caught up with you so I can deliver some good news in person."
"Good news?" Carson pulled up behind Nikki, a palm to her back to brace her.
"Autopsy report finally came in, and Owens was definitely struck, and by a right-handed person. Since you're a lefty, that's good news for you. Even as fit as you are, it's unlikely you could have exerted such force with your right. While we haven't completely ruled anyone out, it's safe to say we're shifting our focus elsewhere for now. Although why that someone would want his belt..." He shrugged.
Nikki reached out to Carson, trembling a hint, her eyes still glued to Reis as he detailed more intricacies about the autopsy and height angles at the site of impact. Carson clasped her hand, a similar relief rocking him slam down to his feet. No one should have to carry the burden of having taken another life, even in self-defense.
Although since a large percentage of the world was right-handed, they hadn't narrowed the search much.
"I've already placed a call to your principal that you've been crossed off our suspect list. Given his sigh of relief, I imagine there's already a message waiting for you on your voice mail."
"Reis, I have to confess I'm not overly impressed with the protective drive-bys around here. A broken balcony, slashed tires, and all while she's being watched. Once word leaks that the investigation's no longer focused on Nikki, this person's going to get deadly serious in eliminating her before she remembers."
"I understand your concern, but we can't put someone in protective custody indefinitely." He chomped harder, faster on his gum. "But I've got connections downtown. I'll put some pressure on local police."
A fair offer, even if nothing short of a closed case seemed like enough now. "Thank you. And thanks for making the personal trip out."
"No problem. I need to ask her brother and mother some questions anyway, but I see now that their cars are gone. I should have called first."
Nikki's hand twitched clasped in his, but she stayed silent.
"Have a nice afternoon, Major." Reis nodded. "Ms. Price."
Agent Reis slid into his nondescript blue sedan and pulled away from the curb. Once Reis's license plate disappeared around the corner, Carson hauled Nikki into his arms. "About time he figured out you couldn't have done something like that."
She trembled in his arms. "How could you be so sure?"
"I just knew, damn it." His arms convulsed tighter around her. "Although now there's not a chance you're going anywhere alone."
Nikki eased her head back to look up at him, not too far since she was tall, a perfect fit. "I'll worry about right-handed threats later. Right now, I'm so relieved at this sliver of hope."
"Fair enough. But I'm going to come back after work so we can all discuss more serious security."
Carson palmed the small of her back on the way up the side steps leading to the garage apartment. He scanned the single room efficiency, an open space with a futon, kitchenette and cubicle bathroom. Only one entrance in and out, with an alarm on the door as safe as she could be without him parking his butt with her 24/7, something she wouldn't allow anyway.
Although damn, what he wouldn't give for the pleasure of simply watching her sleep.
She slumped against the door frame. "Ohmigod, I knew I was stressed, but didn't even begin to know how much until now."
"You have reason to celebrate."
"Are you offering to celebrate with me?" Her loaded question broadsided him.
They were standing on the threshold of more than her apartment.
He cupped her face, fingers threading back into her loose hair. "What do you think?"
And somehow he was kissing her. He should pull away and make sure she wanted— Her lips parted under his and yeah. Just yeah. He tasted her and a hint of the barbecue they'd had for lunch.
Her hands skimmed along his back and up to loop around his neck. "No mustache," she murmured against his mouth. "Feels different."
"It's going to be different this time, too." His hands slid lower to cup her amazing bottom he'd admired as she climbed the mast. Hell, to be honest, he'd been checking her out since she'd strutted past him in shorts while subbing for a sick member of the squadron volleyball team.
All the reasons he should stay away faded under the onslaught of driving need to claim her as his, finally, totally, and damn it, memorize every second of the feel of her toned body under his hands because he wouldn't be idiot enough to treat her so recklessly again.
"Carson," Nikki whispered against his mouth, tugging him back to the present. "Either that's a phone ringing in your pocket or you're really happy to see me."
"Both." He dropped another quick kiss before pulling back. He fished out his cell phone, looked at the LCD panel and winced. "The squadron. I've got to take it." He flipped open his phone. "Hunt."
"Captain Seabrook. All hell's breaking loose here, sir. We need you back ASAP. There's been a bombing in the barracks overseas, the barracks housing our guys."
His gut burned raw with each forced even breath. He needed a status report. "SITREP?"
"One confirmed dead, more expected, but it's chaos there and here."
His gaze snapped straight to Nikki and her furrowing brow as she somehow picked up on his tension even though he'd kept his face neutral. Her father was over there along with so many of their friends, and there wasn't a thing he could do except be the bearer of the horrific details. With the taste of Nikki still on his lips, he was torn with the need to keep her close in case the news involved her.
But duty didn't give him that option.
"Hold down the fort. I'm on my way."
And he prayed when he came back to the Price home that it wouldn't be for an official notification visit.
Six hours later, the phone rang on her mom's kitchen wall.
Slamming her memory journal shut, Nikki launched from her chair at the table to snatch up the cordless receiver and kicked herself for not placing it beside her, but she wasn't thinking clearly right now. Carson had told her there was a bombing overseas and to keep her pregnant mother away from the television until he could get details.
Please, God, let her father be all right.
And if her father wasn't okay, let her be strong enough when the time came to tell her mom. At least her mother was upstairs resting after supper, so Nikki would have time to pull herself together if the worst...
"Carson?" she gasped into the mouthpiece, her fingers numbing from her death grip. Death? Awful word choice. The smell of leftover spaghetti hanging in the air made her nauseous. "Is everything okay?"
Silence answered. A delay for a telemarketer recording? She glanced at the caller ID, which read "unknown" as she'd seen before when Carson used his cell.
She put the receiver to her ear again. "Carson? Is that you?"
Was the news so bad he was searching for the right words? But no. He was never that shaken. If anything, he became more focused in a crisis. She admired that about him, along with so many other traits she'd never noticed before, too caught up in her hormonal crush and a thousand other things that seemed frivolous now in light of how transient life could be.
Huffing breaths increased on the airwaves, sending a creepy chill down her spine. An obscene phone call? Or something far more sinister and dangerous?
Footsteps sounded from the living room, coming closer, loping—her brother.
"Hang up," Chris hissed, the television echoing Jamie's Disney flick from the other room.
He yanked the phone from her and barked into the receiver, "The line's tapped, you bastard, so quit calling."
Chris nailed the off button and tossed the phone onto Jamie's empty high chair.
What was going on and why hadn't anyone bothered to tell her? "The phone's tapped?"
"We've been getting calls like that for two days, so Mom phoned that Agent Reis guy. Mom didn't want to scare you and since you stayed up in the garage apartment most of the time, you were never here when one came in."
Could that have been why Reis wanted to speak to her family?
And ohmigod, none of this even mattered if something had happened to her father.
Call, call, call. She touched the phone, willing it to ring with Carson on the other end. Her hand slid back to her side as she turned to her brother. "Were you going to tell me about the breather and speaking with Agent Reis?"
"Haven't had the chance since you've been so busy with your major squeeze." Her brother slouched against the counter with a leftover slice of garlic bread. "Major squeeze. Get it? He's a major?" When she didn't laugh, he frowned. "Is something wrong?"
No need for Chris to worry, too. Pulling a weak attempt at a smile, she pitched a pot holder at his head. "Major squeeze? That was pretty lame."
"So insult me or something. This is no fun if you won't fight back."
She dropped into a chair at the kitchen table, snitching up the cordless phone. "I'm just on edge." She nudged her memory journal aside, not that she'd been able to add anything to the blank page with worries for her father filling her head. "Now what about this mystery caller? What did Agent Reis have to say?"
The phone rang under her hand. She snatched it up, thumbing the on button, but wary of another call from 'the breather'. "Hello?"
"It's me." Carson.
She sighed her relief, only to have tension ratchet up all over again as she waited to hear what happened overseas.
"Your father's okay."
Thank God, Carson cut right to the chase. She grabbed the edge of the table to keep from falling off her seat, her whole body suddenly limp. Her silent, lumbering father would be corning home. She blinked back tears.
Chris frowned, starting toward her and reaching for the phone.
Nikki palmed the mouthpiece. "The call's for me."
"Sure, I can tell when I'm not wanted." He ambled back to the Disney flick, whispering "major squeeze" repeatedly. God, she loved her dorky brother who'd been so sweet helping out at home even after his classes resumed.
She slid her hand from the receiver. "I'm back. Sorry, but I wanted to send Chris out. Details? Please."
"Your dad wasn't even injured. I spoke with him a half hour ago." Carson rushed to reassure her. "I'm heading toward your house and I don't want your mother to freak out when I pull into the driveway."