"She's upstairs resting."
"Good," he answered, his voice so.. .dead? "Are you free?"
What did he need to say that couldn't be relayed over the phone? "Just hanging out with Chris and Jamie, watching Jungle Book."
"Could you explain to Chris what's going on so he can tell your mom if she wakes up and there's something on the news?"
"Sure, but do you really think there will be anything on TV?"
"It was bad over there, Nikki." Cell phone static echoed along with the silence and what sounded like a heavy swallow. "I'm pulling into the driveway now. Could you meet me outside?"
He was upset. Of course he was. And oh God, he'd come to her.
"Give me thirty seconds to update Chris, and then I'm out the door."
His bass rumbled even deeper, hoarse with emotion. If the accident didn't involve her father, there could only be one reason Carson had driven over.
He needed her. A couple of weeks ago she would have expected to take satisfaction from that. Now, she could only think of racing out the door, her heart as heavy as his voice over the phone at just the thought of him being in pain.
Studying the tops of his flight boots, Carson slumped against his truck tailgate, not sure why he'd driven here, but knowing if he didn't he might land in the bottom of a bottle before morning.
Even though he'd wanted to run to Nikki from the start, he'd tried to find his sponsor. Nikki shouldn't have to deal with his crap. But his sponsor hadn't been at home or at work or even picking up his cell phone.
Streetlights flickered on, doing little to brighten his mood. He needed to stop thinking about the past hours spent informing a woman her husband wasn't coming home. Of more hours telling two other women their husbands were being flown to Germany for surgery and God only knew if they would survive.
Still checking out his boots and that lone dog tag attached to ID a dead aviator when his body was blown to bits, Carson heard the front door creak open and bang closed. Nikki's footsteps—he was too tired to question how he knew it was her without even looking—thudded down the porch stairs. Closer, until her gym shoes and the hem of her jeans appeared in view.
He looked up and let himself soak in the sight of her makeup-free face, hair straggling from her haphazard pony-tail. He'd been right to come here.
Carson fished out his keys and passed them to her. "Feel like driving? I even brought along your CD."
"Sure. Who would turn down the chance to drive a great new machine like this?" She took the keys from his hand, lingering for a quick comforting second before pulling away as if sensing he couldn't take too much emotion.
Without another word—and God bless her, no questions, yet—she slid behind the wheel, cranked the engine and rolled down the windows.
She handled the vehicle with her typical confidence, so he relaxed, only as his eyes slid closed realizing he never sat in the passenger seat. Even in the plane, he was the aircraft commander. His copilot days were long past.
Having an equal partner was rare.
He homed in on sounds to blot out thoughts—cars roaring past, the road reverberation shifting in tune as they ascended a bridge. A barge chugged in the distance, a long mournful horn echoing.
Inhale. Exhale. Forget. Inhale beach air. Salt water. Marsh. The scent of Nikki's soap. He was being selfish making her wait.
He turned his head along the seat. "I guess you want to know what happened."
"You'll tell me when you're ready." She kept her eyes forward, hands at ten and two, a rock when he needed one so damned much.
"I'm ready to talk whenever you want to pull over."
"Okay then. I know a quiet place not too far from here." A few miles later, she took the next exit off the highway, down a two-lane road along the shore, finally turning onto a dirt road leading to a tiny deserted historical landmark. The small battlefield boasted little more than a couple of mini-cannons, a broken cement bench and a sign explaining what happened here over two hundred and twenty-five years ago.
Shutting off the engine, Nikki shifted in the seat, leather creaking. "How about we sit in the back of the truck and look at the stars?"
She understood him so well it shook him sometimes since he didn't much like people rooting around in the cobweb-filled darkness of his head.
Well damn. Could that have been a part of why he'd run so hard and fast in the other direction after waking up in her bed? Not a reassuring thought in the least since he'd always told himself he stayed away for her, rather than risk hurting her again.
He leaned over to the backseat and pulled a bedroll of blankets forward. "I sleep outside sometimes."
In the back of his truck or the deck of his boat, the solitude and stars called to him. Except tonight he needed Nikki beside him.
Carson turned the key to keep the CD playing, windows down before he stepped outside and dropped the back hatch. He unrolled the bedding, tossing the sleeping bag for cushion and shaking out the extra blanket to wrap around them, trying like crazy to ignore the intimacy of the whole action.
The night wasn't that cold, high forties maybe, with a bit of a bite in the crisp air. He followed her into the truck bed, sitting beside her, draping the blanket over their shoulders, their legs stretched out side by side with a tree bower overhead. A few stars twinkled through, but the overall haven effect blocked out the world.
By instinct, he slid his arm around her waist and she didn't object, simply tucked her head on his shoulder while they both leaned against the cab and stared up at the sky. The time had come to talk. As much as he hated pouring out the horror of the day at her feet, here they were, and he was learning Nikki was a lot stronger than he'd known.
"There was a bombing at the barracks housing our crews. Two injured." His head thunked back against the glass. "One dead."
Her hand fell to his thigh in a steady weight of comfort. "Who died?"
'The young loadmaster, Gabby." So named "Gabby" because the kid talked all the time and now would never speak again. "I had to tell his wife. She's only twenty years old, Nikki. Twenty damn years old and already a widow."
Her fingers squeezed tight on his thigh. She stayed silent. What could she say anyway? There weren't words for this. God knew he'd looked for them when speaking to Gabby's wife, and he'd said something, undoubtedly inadequate. He'd taken flight surgeon Monica Korba and Chaplain Murdoch with him, but ultimately telling her was his responsibility, his squadron, his lost wingman.
Big band tunes from WWII teased from the truck cab, the pair of chipped cannons leaning. Symbols of so much loss.
"I don't know how the commanders during World War II handled all the deaths." His chin fell to rest on top of her head, the scent of her mingling with the ocean air to fill the hollow-ness inside him.
"You said two were injured?"
This had to be traumatic for her, too. These people were her friends. He cupped her shoulder and hugged her closer. "Bronco and Joker."
She gasped, just a slight hitch she swallowed back without looking up at him.
He rubbed her arm until her breathing settled again. "Bronco was pinned by a beam when the barracks collapsed. He's got a few crushed ribs and a punctured lung. Joker caught flying glass in the chest and face. I spoke to Joker's fiancée right before she was supposed to leave for work. She kept trying to find her shoes as if that would make everything all right."
Her arms slipped around his waist and she held tight, offering a comfort he wouldn't ask for but was grateful she thought to give.
He forced down the acrid taste in his mouth insidiously whispering for a shot of something smooth to wash it away. "We finally caught up with Bronco's wife. Since she's a military doc she kept trying to discuss everything in medical terms with Doc Korba, but her hands and voice were shaking so bad while she talked... Bronco's little girl was running around the living room like everything was fine and she didn't have a clue her daddy's on an operating table in another country."
His voice cracked. Damn it. He scrubbed his hand under his nose and started to stand. "We should go back now."
She reached up, clasped his hand and stopped him. "Do you have to return to the squadron?"
"No. There's nothing more I can do tonight." He looked down at her, her old-time music riding the breeze, moonlight streaming silver glints in her hair with a timeless hint of what she might look like in thirty years.
Nikki tugged. "Then let's stay here."
"I'm pretty messed up in the head and we both know what happens when I can't think straight around you."
"Have you been drinking?"
"No." He wanted to, but was hanging on now, thanks to her.
"Neither have I." She tugged again. "Stay. Let's look at the stars and talk if we need to or just be quiet. But I don't think either of us is ready to go back yet."
He knelt beside her. "How did you get so smart so young?"
"It's in the music."
He knew better.
The age difference excuses weren't going to work for him anymore. While there were certainly a legion of other problems they would have to deal with later, for tonight at least they were both on even footing and in need of something they could only find together.
Cradling her face in his hands, Carson gave up the fight and kissed her.
Nikki didn't even think of pulling away from Carson and the warm pressure of his mouth against hers. In fact, she didn't expect to pull away from him at all for a long time tonight.
Halfway through his outpouring about speaking with the families, her heart had softened the rest of the way toward forgiving him for what happened before. Any man who noticed the vulnerability in a woman spinning circles to find her shoes in a crisis...well, that man had a deep and tender heart.
She wasn't sure what she intended to do with him after tonight, but she would never be able to move forward if she didn't finish what they'd started months ago. What better place to be together than out in the open? Away from the world that seemed to intrude too often and insist they were wrong for each other, for a litany of reasons she couldn't remember because the bold sweep of his tongue stole every thought right out of her head.
What was it about him? Could it simply be his experience that made men her age seem like boys? He certainly did know his way around a nerve-humming kiss that made her forget the nip in the air. In fact she could swear her skin was steaming as hotly as the blood coursing through her veins. His palm sketched along her stomach, bared as her sweater hitched, the bottom button already open in a V.
Arching—was that a purr coming from her?—she savored his calluses gained from years sailing, the gentle rasp a tantalizing abrasion against her oversensitive skin. She wanted more, more kisses, touch, sensation.
Everything, here under the bower of trees and light of a harvest moon glinting on the water.
He leaned forward, or she angled down, or they both simply followed gravity to the sleeping bag. She wasn't sure and didn't care as long as they both were flat. Soon. Yes. She sank into the giving softness, his body blanketing hers while he braced on his elbows to keep his weight off her.
Her legs locked around his at the knees, her hands urging against his rippling shoulders. "I want it all tonight."
No half measures like their other time together.
Still he kept the full press of himself off her, the sleeping bag only offering so much protection from the steel truck bed. He peered down at her, blue eyes deepening to a midnight hue almost as dark as the sky. "Things are moving fast here tonight. Are you sure this is what you want?"
"Do you plan to walk out on me afterward?"
"I tried to stay away and we saw how well that worked for me. I've thought about you every damn second for seven months."